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NOS4A2(4)
Author: Joe Hill

Linda emerged from her bedroom, holding a wet washcloth to the corner of her mouth. Her feathery auburn hair was disheveled and her eyes unfocused, as if she had in fact been asleep. Her gaze sharpened when she saw the Brat in her husband's arms.

She met them at the door to Vic's bedroom. Linda reached up with slender fingers and pushed the hair back from Vic's brow, pressed a hand to her forehead. Linda's palm was chilly and smooth, and her touch set off a shivering fit that was one part sickness, one part pleasure. Vic's parents weren't mad at each other anymore, and if the Brat had known that all she had to do to bring them together again was make herself sick, she could've skipped going across the bridge to get the bracelet and just stuck a finger down her throat.

"What happened to her?"

"She passed out," Chris said.

"No I didn't," said the Brat.

"Hundred-degree fever and falling down, and she wants to argue with me," said her father with unmistakable admiration.

Her mother lowered the washcloth she was holding to the corner of her own mouth. "Heatstroke. Three hours in that car and then right outside on her bike, no sunscreen on, and nothing to drink all day except that rotten milkshake at Terry's."

"Frappe. They call 'em frappes at Terry's," Vic said. "You hurt your mouth."

Her mother licked the corner of her swollen lips. "I'll get a glass of water and some ibuprofen. We'll both take some."

"While you're in the kitchen, why don't you grab your bracelet?" Chris said. "It's on the table."

Linda took two steps before registering what her husband had said. She looked back. Chris McQueen stood in the doorway to Vic's room, holding her in his arms. Vic could see David Hasselhoff, over her bed, smiling at her, looking like he could barely suppress the urge to wink: You did good, kid.

"It was in the car," Chris said. "The Brat found it."

Chapter Four

Home

VIC SLEPT.

Her dreams were an incoherent flickershow of still images: a gasmask on a cement floor, a dead dog by the side of the road with its head smashed in, a forest of towering pine trees hung with blind white angels.

This last image was so vivid and mysteriously awful-those dark sixty-foot-high trees swaying in the wind like stoned revelers in a pagan ceremony, the angels flashing and gleaming in their branches-that she wanted to scream.

She tried to yell but couldn't force any sound up her throat. She was trapped beneath a suffocating avalanche of shadow stuff, a mountainous heap of soft, airless matter. She fought to claw her way out, shoving desperately, flailing about with all the angry, wiry strength she could muster, until suddenly she found herself sitting up in bed, her whole body greased in sweat. Her father sat on the edge of the mattress beside her, holding her by the wrists.

"Vic," he said. "Vic. Relax. You just smacked me hard enough to turn my head around. Lay off. It's Dad."

"Oh," she said. He let go of her, and her arms dropped to her sides. "Sorry."

He held his jaw between thumb and forefinger and wiggled it back and forth. "It's okay. Probably had it coming."

"For what?"

"I don't know. For whatever. Everyone's got summin'."

She leaned forward and kissed his whiskery chin, and he smiled.

"Your fever broke," her father said. "You feel better?"

She shrugged, supposed she felt all right, now that she was out from under the great pile of black blankets and away from that dream forest of malevolent Christmas trees.

"You were pretty out of it," he said. "You should've heard yourself."

"What did I say?"

"At one point you were shouting that the bats were out of the bridge," he told her. "I think you meant belfry."

"Yeah. I mean . . . no. No, I was probably talking about the bridge." Vic had forgotten, for a moment, about the Shorter Way. "What happened to the bridge, Dad?"

"Bridge?"

"The Shorter Way. The old covered bridge. It's all gone."

"Oh," he said. "I heard that some dumb son of a bitch tried to drive his car across it and went right through. Got hisself killed and brought down most of the bridge with him. They demoed the rest. That's why I told you I didn't want you going out on that damn thing. They should've taken it down twenty years ago."

She shivered.

"Look at you," her father said. "You are just sick as a dog."

She thought of her fever dream about the dog with the smashed-in head, and the world first brightened, then dimmed.

When her vision cleared, her father was holding a rubber bucket against her chest.

"If you have to choke something up," he said, "try and get it in the pail. Christ, I'll never take you to frigging Terry's again."

She remembered the smell of Petesweat and the ribbons of flypaper coated with dead bugs and vomited.

Her father walked out with the pail of sick. He came back with a glass of ice water.

She drank half in three swallows. It was so cold it set off a fresh shivering fit. Chris pulled the blankets up around her again, put his hand on her shoulder, and sat with her, waiting for the chill to pass. He didn't move. He didn't talk. It was calming just to have him there, to share in his easy, self-assured silence, and in almost no time at all she felt herself sliding down into sleep. Sliding down into sleep . . . or riding, maybe. With her eyes closed, she had a sensation, almost, of being on her bike again and gliding effortlessly into dark and restful quiet.

When her father rose to go, though, she was still conscious enough to be aware of it, and she made a noise of protest and reached for him. He slipped away.

"Get your rest, Vic," he whispered. "We'll have you back on your bike in no time."

She drifted.

His voice came to her from far off.

"I'm sorry they took the Shorter Way down," he murmured.

"I thought you didn't like it," she said, rolling over and away from him, letting him go, giving him up. "I thought you were scared I'd try to ride my bike on it."

"That's right," he said. "I was scared. I mean I'm sorry they went and took it down without me. If they were going to blow the thing out of the sky, I wish they'd let me set the charges. That bridge was always a death trap. Anyone could see it was going to kill someone someday. I'm just glad it didn't kill you. Go to sleep, short stuff."

Chapter Five

Various Locales

IN A FEW MONTHS, THE INCIDENT OF THE LOST BRACELET WAS LARGELY forgotten, and when Vic did remember it, she remembered finding the thing in the car. She did not think about the Shorter Way if she could help it. The memory of her trip across the bridge was fragmented and had a quality of hallucination about it, was inseparable from the dream she'd had of dark trees and dead dogs. It did her no good to recollect it, and so she tucked the memory away in a safe-deposit box of the mind, locked it out of sight, and forgot about it.

And she did the same with all the other times.

Because there were other times, other trips on her Raleigh across a bridge that wasn't there, to find something that had been lost.

There was the time her friend Willa Lords lost Mr. Pentack, her good-luck corduroy penguin. Willa's parents cleaned out her room one day while Willa was sleeping over at Vic's house, and Willa believed that Mr. Pentack had been chucked into the garbage along with her Tinker Bell mobile and the Lite-Brite board that didn't work anymore. Willa was inconsolable, so torn up she couldn't go to school the next day-or the day after.

But Vic made it better. It turned out that Willa had brought Mr. Pentack along for the sleepover. Vic found it under her bed, among the dust bunnies and forgotten socks. Tragedy averted.

Vic certainly didn't believe she found Mr. Pentack by climbing on her Raleigh and riding through the Pittman Street Woods to the place where the Shorter Way Bridge had once stood. She did not believe the bridge was waiting there or that she had seen writing on the wall, in green spray paint: FENWAY BOWLING →. She did not believe the bridge had been filled with a roar of static and that mystery lights flashed and raced beyond its pine walls.

She had an image in her mind of riding out of the Shorter Way and into a darkened bowling alley, empty at seven in the morning. The covered bridge was, absurdly, sticking right through the wall and opened into the lanes themselves. Vic knew the place. She had gone to a birthday party there two weeks before; Willa had been there, too. The pine flooring was shiny, greased with something, and Vic's bike squirted across it like butter in a hot pan. She went down and banged her elbow. Mr. Pentack was in a lost-and-found basket behind the counter, under the shelves of bowling shoes.

This was all just a story she told herself the night after she discovered Mr. Pentack under her bed. She was sick that night, hot and clammy, with the dry heaves, and her dreams were vivid and unnatural.

The scrape on her elbow healed in a couple days.

When she was ten, she found her father's wallet between the cushions in the couch, not on a construction site in Attleboro. Her left eye throbbed for days after she found the wallet, as if someone had punched her.

When she was eleven, the de Zoets, who lived across the street, lost their cat. The cat, Taylor, was a scrawny old thing, white with black patches. He had gone out just before a summer cloudburst and not returned. Mrs. de Zoet walked up and down the street the next morning, chirping like a bird, mewling Taylor's name. Mr. de Zoet, a scarecrow of a man who wore bow ties and suspenders, stood in the yard with his rake, not raking anything, a kind of hopelessness in his pale eyes.

Vic particularly liked Mr. de Zoet, a man with a funny accent like Arnold Schwarzenegger's, who had a miniature battlefield in his office. Mr. de Zoet smelled like fresh-brewed coffee and pipesmoke and let Vic paint his little plastic infantrymen. Vic liked Taylor the cat, too. When he purred, he made a rusty clackety-clack in his chest, like a machine with old gears, trundling to noisy life.

No one ever saw Taylor again . . . although Vic told herself a story about riding across the Shorter Way Bridge and finding the poor old thing matted with blood and swarming with flies, in the wet weeds, by the side of the highway. It had dragged itself out of the street after a car ran over its back. The Brat could still see the bloodstains on the blacktop.

Vic began to hate the sound of static.

Chapter Six

SPICY MENACE

1990

Sugarcreek, Pennsylvania

THE AD WAS ON ONE OF THE LAST PAGES OF SPICY MENACE, THE August 1949 issue, the cover of which depicted a screaming nude frozen in a block of ice (She gave him the cold shoulder . . . so he gave her the big chill!). It was just a single column, below a much larger advertisement for Adola Brassieres (Oomphasize your figure!). Bing Partridge noticed it only after a long, considering look at the lady in the Adola ad, a woman with pale, creamy mommy tits, supported by a bra with cone-shaped cups and a metallic sheen. Her eyes were closed, and her lips were parted slightly, so she looked like she was asleep and dreaming sweet dreams, and Bing had been imagining waking her with a kiss.

"Bing and Adola, sitting in a tree," Bing crooned, "F-U-C-K-I-N-Geeee."

Bing was in his quiet place in the basement, with his pants down and his ass on the dusty concrete. His free hand was more or less where you would imagine it, but he was not particularly busy yet. He had been grazing his way through the issue, looking for the best parts, when he found it, a small block of print, in the lower left corner of the page. A snowman in a top hat gestured with one crooked arm at a line of type, framed by snowflakes.

Bing liked the ads in the back of the pulps: ads for tin lockers filled with toy soldiers (Re-create the thrill of Verdun!), ads for vintage World War II equipment (Bayonets! Rifles! Gasmasks!), ads for books that would tell you how to make women want you (Teach Her to Say, "I LOVE YOU!!"). He often clipped out order forms and sent in pocket change or grimy dollar bills, in an attempt to acquire ant farms and metal detectors. He wanted, with all his heart, to Amaze His Friends! and Astonish His Relatives!-and never mind that his friends were the three feebs who worked under him in the janitorial crew at NorChemPharm and that his only direct relatives had returned to the soil, in the cemetery behind the New American Faith Tabernacle. Bing had never once considered that his father's collection of soft-core pulps-mildewing in a cardboard box down in Bing's quiet room-were older than he was and that most of the corporations he was sending money to had long since ceased to exist.

But his feelings as he read, then reread the advertisement about this place Christmasland were an emotional response of a different order. His uncircumcised and vaguely yeasty-smelling penis went limp in his left hand, forgotten. His soul was a steeple in which all the bells had begun to clash at once.

He had no idea where or what Christmasland was, had never heard of it. And yet he instantly felt he had wanted to go there all his life . . . to walk its cobblestone streets, stroll beneath its leaning candy-cane lampposts, and to watch the children screaming as they were swept around and around on the reindeer carousel.

"What would you do for a lifetime pass to a place where every morning is Christmas morning?!" the advertisement shouted.

Bing had forty-two Christmases under his belt, but when he thought of Christmas morning, only one mattered, and that one stood for all the rest. In this memory of Christmas, his mother slid sugar cookies shaped like Christmas trees out of the oven, so the whole house took on their vanilla fragrance. It was years before John Partridge would catch a framing nail in the frontal lobe, and that morning he sat on the floor with Bing, watching intently as Bing tore open his gifts. Bing remembered the last present best: a large box that contained a big rubber gasmask and a dented helmet, rust showing where the paint was chipped away.

   
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