June, 1987. Hitchhiking. Mr. Norris.
Once, when he was eight, Laird had asked his father about hitchhiking.
“Boy,” his father had said to him, “you do not hitchhike.”
“You did,” he’d answered.
“Times were different, then. Now…”
“What if I don’t have a choice? What if it’s an emergency?”
“You can call for help on the radio.”
“What if the radio’s broken?”
“Holmes’s cabin’s four miles due east. You should be able to make that in half an hour, easy.”
“You have to cross the river to get there. What if it’s flooded?”
His father had sighed, deeply, and the boy had felt the first stirrings of nervousness. “Why can’t you let this be?”
He’d looked away. “I just want to know. In case there’s an emergency.”
After a moment during which he could feel the weight of his father’s gaze resting on him, the old man had said, “All right. If the radio’s broken, and the river’s in flood, and whatever else I can’t imagine has left you with no choice but to hitchhike, then you wait and you watch. You pick a car with a family in it, a dad, a mom, couple of kids. You should be okay that way. You do not wave at a police car; you see a police car coming, you walk along like you’re on a Sunday stroll. And you do not, you absolutely do not, flag down a car or a truck with a single driver. No way, uh-uh. You’re better off staying with whatever disaster it is than getting in a car with some strange guy.”
He’d wanted to ask his father why he had to avoid solo drivers, what was so bad about them, but he’d sensed his father at the end of his patience, and had let the question go unasked.
Now, nine years later, his head still spinning from whatever had been in the cloth Mr. Norris had pressed to his face, his arms and legs useless, Laird thought, Right you were, Dad.
Ten feet in front of him, the man who had offered him a ride on the outskirts of Big Delta had the trunk of his car propped open and was bent over inside it. To either side of him within the gaping space, Laird could see what looked like bricks, stacked in rough mounds. Ballast, he supposed, for bad weather; a car as old as this one would need all the help it could get once the weather soured. His worn tweed jacket riding up the back of his white shirt, Mr. Norris stretched for something deep in the trunk. He was whistling: “I’m On the Top of the World.” Head still down, he withdrew a pair of squat candles, one of which he set on each of the brick mounds.
Pretty much the moment the car door had slammed shut, Mr. Norris had offered one soft hand in welcome and declared himself an accountant, retired early to see these grand United States while he was still able to enjoy them. Never settled down, Mr. Norris had continued while his cathedral of a car had rolled along the Alaska Highway. Just…never happened. Used to think it was a failing on his part, but now that he’d left his job behind, there was no one holding him back, no one telling him he couldn’t drive cross country if that was what he felt like doing for the next year. He’d gone on like that for a while, describing the spots he’d visited in the bland enthusiasm of a travel brochure: The White House, the St. Louis Arch, the Grand Canyon. The man hadn’t seemed an accountant; he’d projected none of the crispness, the precision you would expect from someone who’d spent his adult years managing people’s money. His threadbare tweed jacket, his wrinkled shirt and trousers, had marked him as a member of a less prestigious profession, an assistant manager who’d never advanced. Even the itinerary that had continued to spill out of his mouth had sounded forced—rehearsed, lines in a monologue he’d written for himself. If a little peculiar, Laird had judged it none of his business. Plenty of people came to Alaska looking to reinvent themselves, leave the calamities of their old lives behind and become something else, something new. So Mr. Norris wanted to be a retired accountant: let him be a retired accountant.
He’d seen the white handkerchief in the man’s right hand, but hadn’t registered it as a threat. The recitation of place names pouring out of Mr. Norris’s mouth had numbed him, somehow, so that even when the cloth had pressed against his nose and mouth, it had taken him an almost shocking amount of time to process what was happening, and then it had been too late.
There was a couple hundred dollars in his bag, the proceeds of a month’s assorted odd jobs for an old woman whose cataracted sight had contracted her world to the first floor of her bungalow. Laird hoped that might be enough for Mr. Norris, but he doubted it. When the man withdrew from the trunk of his car and turned to him, the roll of duct tape in his left hand and the length of knife in his right confirmed that doubt.
Laird had his own blade tucked down the back of his jeans, a KA-BAR he’d bought off an old trucker in his cups who claimed it had seen him safely out of the Chosin Reservoir. As yet, Mr. Norris had not discovered it, but if he intended to truss Laird up (and especially if he had any designs on, say, removing Laird’s jeans), then he’d find the knife and that would be that. The adrenaline surging through his blood felt as if it were burning up whatever had soaked that handkerchief, but not fast enough. There was no point in calling for help: for one thing, his tongue was as sluggish as the rest of him; for another, the evergreens clustered around them were a clear indication Mr. Norris had left the highway in favor of a more secluded location. He waited until Mr. Norris was crossing the distance between them to say, “Wait.”
The man had not realized he’d regained consciousness. His whistle died on his lips, and he stopped in his tracks, which put him slightly beyond the reach of Laird’s right boot. His brows lowered in consternation.
“If it’s money,” Laird started.
“It isn’t money,” the man said.
“Oh yes I can,” Mr. Norris said; although his words lacked the confidence it would have required to make them sound truly threatening. However many times he’d done this before, Laird guessed, his victims had been unconscious. He said, “Why?”
“Does it have to do with that?” He shook his head at the trunk, its brick piles with their candles.
The look that passed over Mr. Norris’s face was equal parts fear and admiration. “Maybe you would understand,” he said. “Although,” he added through a half-laugh, “I’m not sure I do.” He lowered himself into a crouch. “This car,” he said, “it’s not a car. Well, of course it is, but it’s also something else. It’s an instrument, like a pen. Yes, a pen. The earth is its paper. I’m using it—I’m like the hand that uses it to write a sentence. Only, in this case, it’s not so much a sentence I’m writing as a word—a kind of word—a word that’s also a hole in the paper—and what comes through the hole. I know, it’s all very confusing.
“Anyhow, a pen needs ink, or what good is it? A pen that’s doing this kind of work requires special ink. I don’t suppose I have to tell you what that is, do I?”
Laird said nothing.
“I didn’t think so,” Mr. Norris said. “What I’ve done is, I’ve tinkered with the floor of the trunk, so that, once I have a fresh source of ink in there, and I’ve made the requisite…openings, the ink can spill out in a uniform stream that’s fine enough not to attract the notice of any of the authorities. You would be amazed at how far I can travel, how much penmanship I can complete, before I have to stop and look for a new source.
“I’ll tell you one more thing, and then I’m going to have to resume my work. I’m very close to being done. I’m not sure if you’ll be quite enough for what remains, but I can’t imagine I’ll need even all of another young man or woman after you. I can’t tell you… Can you feel it?” Mr. Norris swept his arms around him, almost upsetting his balance. “I’m no longer alone; I haven’t been for some time, now. The Word’s attendants, its supplicants… As I’ve drawn nearer to the end of my task, I’ve had glimpses of them—not enough to say what I’ve seen with any certainty, just that they’re present, all around me.”
As if in reply, the branches of the evergreens around them clashed in a sudden breeze, and Laird thought the spaces between them darkened. There wasn’t time to worry about that, though; if he were going to make a move, this was the time. He concentrated on his right foot, on throwing himself forward and lashing out as hard as he could, connecting the toe of his workboot with Mr. Norris’s face, or, better, his throat. He didn’t see much point to a prayer, so he went ahead with the kick.
His leg failed him. Instead of crushing Mr. Norris’s nose or collapsing his windpipe, it made it no higher than his left knee. The man yelped and, his eyes wide with shock and pain, toppled onto his ass. Forcing himself to move, Laird turned on his side, grabbing for the KA-BAR and catching its hilt on the first try. He rolled back, bringing the knife up to meet what he was sure would be the downward stroke of Mr. Norris’s blade, but the man had dropped his knife and was struggling to his feet. The roll of tape was still in his other hand. Laird lunged for him, but his legs hadn’t regained sufficient strength, and he fell, slashing wildly as he went. He heard a scream, then was on his face. The scream continued as he strained to push himself to his feet. Finally, he had to settle for flipping himself onto his back, the knife up in the best guard he could manage.
He need not have worried. Mr. Norris was on his knees in front of the open trunk. The backs of his trousers, the skin and meat beneath them, had been sliced open, skin and fabric bright with blood. Laird’s swipe had hamstrung him. He supposed he was not out of danger, yet, but he found the continuous scream climbing from the man’s mouth oddly reassuring.
By the time his legs were steady enough to stand on, Mr. Norris’s scream had faded to a drone. He’d wiped the KA-BAR clean on the grass; now, the knife held point up in front of him, Laird circled around Mr. Norris until he came to the front passenger’s door. It was open. He reached in for his bag, and saw as he did so that the key was still in the ignition. For half an instant, he contemplated taking the car, before rejecting the idea. That was what he needed, to be pulled over driving a stolen car whose trunk was a forensic scientist’s nightmare of swirled bloodstains. Even had he been willing to chance it, his gorge rose at the prospect of sitting surrounded by this thing, this rolling abattoir.
That left the question of what to do with Mr. Norris. Ten minutes ago, fighting for his life, he would have had no trouble opening the man from nave to chops with his knife. The battle over, though, the man bested, crippled, killing him became a more problematic affair. Not that Laird saw anything wrong in dragging the KA-BAR across Mr. Norris’s throat, but he might be able to provide the police with information about the people he’d bled to death in the trunk of his car, and that might mean something to family members still hoping for news of their son or daughter. The man had not changed his position; afraid, no doubt, of further pain; and Laird did not figure him for much of a flight risk. All the same, he dipped back into the car, shoved his knife among the wires tangled under the steering wheel, and did what damage he could.
A single path, more an indentation in the underbrush, led out of the clearing. The sun hadn’t moved too much in the sky, so he probably wasn’t that far a walk from Big Delta. Maintaining a wide space between himself and the back of the car, Laird made for the exit. He did not hold his knife at the ready, but neither did he return it to its place under the back of his jeans.
As he passed the trunk, Mr. Norris stopped moaning. The KA-BAR raised, Laird stopped and turned to him. The man’s face was white as flour. “Where are you going?” he said.
“Back to Big Delta.”
“You can’t do that! You can’t leave me here!”
“Don’t worry, you’re not gonna bleed to death. Not before the cops get here, at least. It doesn’t look like I hit any arteries.”
“That’s—they’re coming! Do you understand me? They’re coming!”
“I know: I’m going to fetch them.”
“Not the police, you stupid hick. The attendants. The supplicants. They’re all around us, and they won’t be able to resist the blood…”
Laird had some smart reply ready for the man, but movement on the far side of the car stilled his tongue. He looked in that direction, towards where the evergreens were thickest, where it was darker than it should have been this time in the afternoon. The trees shifted with a breeze he didn’t feel, and then he saw it wasn’t the trees moving, it was what was between the trees, the tall, spindly things he had mistaken for their shadows. For a moment, he watched them stepping forward, raising legs that were much too thin too high, a comedian’s parody of walking quietly, and then he was running as fast as he could in the other direction, out of the clearing along the path that wound across a great meadow.
He tripped, caught his foot and went into a forward roll from which he emerged up and running. Somewhere behind him, he was aware of a terrible sound, but he did not let that stop him. His chest was a bellows full of white-hot air. His arms and legs were knots of pain. He kept running until he reached the highway, until he was nearly run down by a UPS driver. He took the ride the man offered him and did not once look back at the way he’d come.
He did not tell anyone about Mr. Norris, or any of it.