Published in On Spec in May, 2004
1. The car
There’s one thing, really, only one major thing wrong with Kayla’s car. Every time we’re on the road—which is most of the time, really—there’s the smell of gas in it from somewhere. I’m no mechanic—I don’t even know, most of the time, where my driver’s license is—but I’m certain that there’s something deeply wrong with gasoline vapour finding its way into the cab of the car.
It wouldn’t even be so bad if it wasn’t for the fact that Kayla smokes when she drives. Constantly. Incessantly.
In my mind’s eye I see it perfectly—a black and orange paroxysm of flame, a vaguely car-shaped shadow in the middle, the two of us doomed at the explosion’s heart. Sometimes I dream about it. The whole scene reminds me perpetually of my own mortality, and the fact that there probably isn’t a lot in the car that isn’t flammable—and toxic at that—makes me, if possible, yet more nervous.
I mentioned it to her once. You know what she said? “Relax, Dan‑o,” she said, and laughed. “Nothin’ to worry about.”
“Fire,” I said. “Ball.”
“You worry too much, man,” she said, and laughed again. “Really. No fear.”
The car would be a classic if she were to restore it. Glossy wax on a custom paint job, the heavy, irregular rumble of the engine modulated and tempered by a complete muffler system (along with God knows how many repairs under the hood), brilliant chrome on all the chromable surfaces and a bunch of gilt plastic trophies on Kayla’s shelves. The way it is right now, though, the body’s in bad shape, pocked with rust-ringed holes, the windshield’s a spiderweb of cracks and chips—when the sun’s in her eyes, I don’t know how she can see to drive —the engine puts probably half its power into its basso profundo voice, and the most expensive part of it, mornings, is the full tank of gas. By afternoon it’s evenly split between the gas and the sound system.
It’s a good system. When she bought the car she yanked out the push-button AM-only non-functioning piece of crap radio and had somebody install her a good system, a CD player, subwoofer (usually lost in the sound from under the hood), good speakers in good locations. When she cranks the tunes, they probably hear us coming an extra mile down the road.
On the road beside a lush hillside dotted with damp-dark headstones, the hitcher sat, his olive-drab army-issue duffel bag a makeshift seat. Felt-tip capitals on corrugated cardboard, runny in the rain, said JERSEY PLEASE. Kayla laughed, and I did too, at the curious politesse of the sign.
We pulled over. We always do. The tires crunched on the wet gravel, and the hitcher picked up his duffel and hurried to the car. He was old, especially for a hitchhiker, probably sixty-five or more. A bald dome of a head, fringed with thin white hair gone slightly yellow. His grin was toothy, though, and his gait was crisp and swift, if slightly stoop-shouldered.
Kayla turned down the stereo while I got out, wrestled with the trunk lid— for a door with a broken lock, it’s hard to get it to open—and he tossed the bag into the dark maw with the ease of long practice. Rain plastered my hair to my head; rivulets of water ran down my face. He clambered into the back as I got back into the front. I turned, extended a hand. “Daniel,” I said. “This is Kayla.”
He shook my hand, once, a solid, firm-gripped pump. “René,” he said. “Like Descartes.”
Kayla shook her head, smiling, and laid the hammer down.
“Where in Jersey are you headed?” she asked, the highway humming away below us, just barely visible through the cracks in the floorboards.
“Amalthea,” he said.
“Is that north or south?”
“North,” he said. “By Cavor, in that area.”
“All right,” Kayla said. To me: “You wanna see if we’ve got a Jersey map?”
“Sure.” I opened the glove box—literally held shut with a drying glob of pink gum which was still fresh enough to give off the faintest whiff of cinnamon—and pulled out the thick wad of papers inside. “Repair manual,” I recited, tossing them back in as I named them, “registrations for the last four years, map of Lesser Juniper County, one of Liddleton, placemat from Sticky’s, another map of Liddleton, dry-cleaning bill, pocket German phrasebook, map of—aha, Jersey, here we go.” I kept the map out, crammed the remaining unanalyzed papers back in and flipped the door up again. Started unfolding the map. Good thing it’s a big car, I thought, not for the first time. “What’re we on?” The rain was combining with the half-rotten state of the wipers to make it hard for me to see, but Kayla kept the accelerator hard down. A huge rooster tail hung perpetually behind us, in rain.
“Forty-one,” Kayla said. “Just coming up on Billabong.”
“Who names these places, anyway?”
René spoke up from the back seat. “I worked once for the Geographical Survey,” he said. “Quite some time ago. Seems like another lifetime now.” He laughed softly, wistfully. “Those days are long over now.”
“Ever name anything?” said Kayla.
“Everything worth naming is named already,” he said. “Though I once ran across a book of charts that was labelled An Alternate Nation. A GS legend, it was. An apocrypha, a book of maps with rivers, mountains, cities, all named for GS patriarchs. Lake Underhill. Gare-le-loup River. Mount Sturban. Ah, Sturban. He was my mentor at the GS for a time.” I looked back at him. His gaze was out the misty window, looking at something far more distant than the rolling meadows beyond the blacktop. “Such a crass punster, for such a brilliant man, was Sturban. ‘Mount Sturban’, indeed.” He chuckled softly, the sound almost lost in the roar of road and engine. “And I—I took up my pencil, and I found an unnamed brook, and I named it for myself. Vanmire Creek. My handwriting was neater, much neater then; my hands didn’t shake.” He sighed, and by slow degrees his gaze returned from whatever infinity he’d been contemplating.
After a while, Kayla said, “Billabong. There a gas station there?”
The sky was clearing, but at the pumps the smell of gas overrode the odour of fresh rain just stopped. Kayla was pumping regular with a cigarette, mercifully unlit, dangling from her lips. René was walking around, “stretching my legs”. He seemed to be walking taller now, the stoop gone from his shoulders. Maybe he’d just been sitting on his duffel bag too long. Or maybe the rain brought on aches that were now freshly absent. Whatever, didn’t matter.
I bought a bag of mints and paid with a handful of coins. The clerk gave me a funny look, half dreamy, and swept the silver with one hand into the other. She dumped it into the till without counting it. Trusting, I thought. Or stoned.
When I came back out, Kayla was on her way in to pay for the gas. René was sitting on the hood of the car, his face turned to the Sun, eyes closed. His hands were rolling tiny curls of tobacco in a cigarette paper with the ease of decades of practice.
He smiled at me without opening his eyes. “Been a long time,” he said, “since I felt Sunlight this bright on me.” He licked the length of the paper, closed it off, pinched it tight. “Got a light?”
“Yeah.” I swung out my gold lighter. I don’t smoke, much, but Kayla does, nearly continually. With friends like her, it’s damn near a necessity to own a lighter.
“Thanks.” He puffed a couple times in silence. “Been a long hard road,” he said, “gettin’ this far. Thanks for the ride.”
“No problem,” I said. “It’s what we do.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I s’pose it is.”
Kayla came out of the little convenience store, lighting her own cigarette with a paper match. She shook the match but it didn’t go out; then she dropped it. I watched with an almost surreal detachment as it fell toward the gas-soaked gravel of the pump area, wondering if this would be it, the time that my luck finally ran out and I became nothing but a rapidly-diverging cloud of messy chunks, thrust outwards and upwards by a greasy black-orange fireball —
The match vanished before it hit the ground. Or seemed to; I’m pretty sure my eyes were playing tricks on me. Maybe, I thought, I was so caught up in the flame that when it snuffed out in the air, I lost track of the falling piece of paper. Maybe. But it sure as hell seemed to just—vanish.
The matchbook was stuck upright in a crack in the upholstery between me and Kayla. The red cover was a standard ad, “Red’s Gas, Hwy 41, Billabong’s Best Soft Serve Ice Cream”. A monochrome image of the station’s highway sign stood beside the white text.
We turned onto 208 and Kayla opened up the throttle. We were barrelling for Jersey. I closed my eyes.
I was standing atop a wooden daïs supported on the shoulders of a hundred people.
The platform was rough under my bare feet. I was nude. It was warm and getting hotter. Get a lot hotter, I thought, before all this is done. It was a familiar thought, one I had thought before, over and over.
The people under my platform trudged ever onwards, ever downwards. Warmer and warmer still. Hot breezes caressed me, licking away sweat, leaving me no cooler. At least I get to return, I thought. At least I get a ticket back out.
The stink of the place was amazing. The corridor was a wide tunnel bored through rugged rock, the floor uneven with tailings and slick with a film of filthy water. Always this place disgusted me.
At least I get to leave again. Even if it is only to return to this cave.
Jerking awake, the sky gone from twilight to bruise-purple, all but the brightest stars washed away by the orange glow of a city, about ten miles distant.
“Amalthea?” I asked.
“Ah,” said Kayla, “you’re back. No, that’s Turin. Amalthea’s about another twenty miles after that.” She looked at me. “Bad dream?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t remember it.” I must have fallen asleep again, because I woke up next when the back door slammed shut.
I was alone in the car, parked in front of a highway-side restaurant, some nameless truck stop whose biggest sign proclaimed OPEN 24 HRS! BREAKF ST ANY IME! Kayla was behind the car, helping René with his duffle bag. She slammed the trunk and they shook hands; Kayla shook her head at something René said. Then René shouldered his duffle and headed into the restaurant.
What the hell, I thought, is going on?
René didn’t look a day over seventeen.
“Seriously,” I said to Kayla, over coffee and well-aged donuts, “he looked like some kid, shaved head, swagger, everything. I don’t get it. I just don’t get it.”
Kayla looked ready to say something, then she pursed her lips and sipped her coffee. Then: “You just woke up. Dreamtime can do weird stuff to your head.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Guess so.”
The Devil saw the hundred people below me and he smiled. Always and ever, that smile chilled me to the bone. Even in the rotting sweaty furnace heat of Hell, the smile of the Devil himself made my blood run cold. Every time, every single time.
He held out a taloned hand, offering me something. My chit, my patchwork note of completion. I snatched it away. I tried not to look at it; it never bore looking at. There were, as ever, hairs still stuck in it. Odd symbols writhed across it, tattooed in. Written in blood and signed with the Devil’s name, it was my ticket back to the Real World, the only way to get past the demons that guarded the border.
My pound of flesh.
When I woke up there were exactly two sources of light in the car: the pale green glow of the instrument cluster, and the orange tip of Kayla’s cigarette. We were screaming down N‑198, across the open plains, nothing around us but miles and miles of wheat and corn and kine. The occasional farmyard light burned blue or yellow or orange, never white.
Kayla gentled the engine in the middle of UNDERHILL POP 800. She seemed to be looking for something. We drove slowly down the main drag, white-painted stores with black windows like gaps in teeth, their painted wood signs weathered into illegibility. The stereo pounded out White Zombie at filling-shaking decibels.
He was standing across the road from a white clapboard church, the cross-topped steeple almost as tall as the building was long. Behind him, the cemetery gates stood open, apparently around the clock. Small towns.
His thumb was out. We pulled over. Just before we stopped, I said to Kayla, “Who hitch-hikes at four AM?”
“Who drives at four AM?” she answered. “Guess it’s just a part of some big master plan.”
“Yeah.” Sometimes Kayla’s a bit odd. Philosophical. “Must be.”
He got in, young guy, maybe twenty, twenty-five. Black fatigue pants, black boots, a sleeveless black T‑shirt that read “KMFDM”. Even in the dark of night he wore a pair of black sunglasses that bulged like a bug’s eyes. His dark hair was short and spiked and he had a dark goatee. “Hey man,” he said, “thanks.”
“I look like a man?” said Kayla.
“Nah, sorry, figure of speech. Appreciate it. Not much traffic, this time of night.”
“Not usually,” said Kayla.
“Guess tonight’s an unusual night,” I said. “Daniel,” pointing to myself, “and Kayla.”
“Name’s Ulf,” he said. “Good tunes, by the way.”
“Thanks,” said Kayla, and hit the gas. I said, “Where to, pardner?”
“Don’t know that.”
“Upstate Groenfeld, near, ah, Groenstadt.”
“Okay,” said Kayla. “We’re headed for Kumiston, in Newbridge County. If I remember correctly, that’s just the other side of the state line from Groenstadt. Probably you can hop the rest of it with a trucker or something.”
“Sure,” he said, “anything’s better’n walkin’.”
I handed the stitched-together piece of hide to the gatekeeper demon. He squinted at it, then ate it and opened the black iron gateway. I folded up my litter and tucked it away in a non-linear dimension, then stepped through, bound for the boneyards, the gravesides, ready to collect my next batch of the damned.
With a strangled sound I snapped back awake, the dream—the nightmare—fading down a lightless tunnel into nothingness.
“Bad dream?” Kayla’s face was a grim thing, her lips drawn into a tight straight line, her eyes narrow slits, focused hard on the narrow black ribbon of the highway.
“Guess so,” I said. “Don’t remember.”
I turned around. The kid was gone. “We drop him off already?”
Kayla sounded distracted. “Huh? Oh, him, yeah. He’s back where he belongs.” Behind us, the first hints of dawn light were tickling the blackness at the rim of the world.
A fly was buzzing on the window beside me, a big one. I slapped at it, missed. “Crap,” said Kayla, “just open the window, you know? Don’t get a big mess all over it.”
I just looked at her. Her car was a wreck, literally a ruin on wheels, held together by bubble gum and duct tape in flagrant defiance of the laws of thermodynamics, and she was lecturing me on the cleanliness of her windows?
I rolled the window down a crack. If the fly was smart enough to get out, I decided, it would live to fight another day. But if it was still inside when I rolled the window back up, splat, it was dead.
It buzzed out the window as soon as the gap was wide enough for it to fit. The wind caught it and it was gone.
“Peyote,” she said, a small paper bag in her hand. “Go on, take it. Something I have to tell you, and this’ll break down the barriers, you know?” The fire flickered across her face, deep blacknesses chasing orange light. Around us, the desert lay flat and chill, the distant stars brilliant.
I took the bag, looked inside: two irregular buttons of some kind of dried plant matter. “Peyote,” she said again.
“Already ate ‘m,” she said. “Hurry up.”
By slow degrees the night grew brighter. It looked like aurora, sort of, brilliant sheets of shimmering colours, blue and green and red, but it wasn’t just in the sky, it was everywhere; the car was iridescent with it, the desert stones and sand shimmered like oilslicks in midday sunlight.
Midnight, she said, and her voice was a hollow drum, a great basso wave rolling over and around me, “midnight and” all’s well. She giggled. It was musical.
I was —
My arms were —
“I don’t” get “it”, I said.
It’s “almost time”, she said. “Wait.” Wait “a little” while longer.
The fire was the centre of the auroral glow, the crux and the source of it all. As such it danced and sang, became different things: a horned devil, a dog’s head, a naked woman on her knees. A horse. A housefly, grotesquely enlarged.
It’s time, she said. Are you seeing it?
It’s happening, isn’t it, Dan‑o? Her mouth was forming the words, but only gibberish sounds were coming out, waves of air pressure that faded and spiked in dull roars and shrieking pitches.
We’re breaking through, she said.
But my brain, my brain, my brain was somehow getting the words back, retranslating the nonsense into English, I don’t know how. Maybe it was the drug, the mushroom, the cactus, I don’t know what the hell she fed me.
The fire jumped and steadied.
Wake up, she said. There is no Union of North America. That’s just a fiction, something your mind created to make sense of what’s happening. The state names you come up with, I don’t know where they come from. It’s all bizarre, but that’s to be expected.
What are—What are you talking about? I said.
Groenfeld. Jersey. Newbridge County. There are no such places. Juniper. Billabong. None of them exist.
How do we get there, then?
We don’t. Not exactly.
They were efficient, she said, but they were none too precise. They cleaned your mind up, walled away your Hell trips from your conscious mind. But you still dream about them, Dan. I know you do. The dreamtime breaks down the barriers, lets it all leak back in. I hear you murmuring, I hear you screaming. And they did other damage too.
Nobody lasts very long on the Hell circuit, she said.
What the hell are you talking about? I demanded.
Do you remember the boy, Dan‑o? Ulf? Kid in some small town, Eyeblink or something?
Underhill, I said. I don’t know how I knew that.
Underhill, yeah, whatever. Do you know why he died?
Yeah. He was fond of twelve-year-old girls. Used to seduce them, or rape them if necessary, in the cornfields outside of town. One day a father caught him in the act. Broke his legs with a baseball bat, then loaded him into the trunk of his car. Took him to the deep woods west of town and unloaded a ten-shot pump-action twelve-gauge into him. Worked in a spiral, started with the feet and hands and ended with the heart. Kid was dead of shock and blood loss by the time he got to the abdomen, but the father just kept on going. By then it was almost ritual.
Died? I said again.
Yeah, she said. And came back as a fly.
But that can’t be right, I said, half to myself.
Kayla said, Oh yes it is.
Dan‑o, do you know what you are?
She didn’t wait for me to answer.
You’re a conduit. You and I, we ferry the souls back from death to their new birthplaces. You, you used to work the Hell circuit, the Christian Hell, carrying the damned down the wide way. It takes a toll, even on a transnatural human. They can suppress your empathy, but only up to a point. They knew it was time to transfer you when you just wigged out. So they moved you slantwise to the Buddhist run, and so now we pick up the dead and we transport them to their places of rebirth. Before they gave you to me they fixed up your mind so you wouldn’t remember the Hell trips.
Now memory’s a funny thing. Once a memory is created there’s no real way to destroy it. So what they do is they wall it all up, they build protective barriers around the memories. The problem is, in your case, they damaged some other equipment in there, and so your ability to create memories is impaired.
But your mind can’t handle reality, our reality. So you try as hard as you can to make sense of it all. We’re always seeing people, ferrying them from point Z to point A? They must be hitchhikers, then, and we’re full-time road-trippers. You project this fantasy world onto your reality, almost a perfect overlap. You imagine a big ugly pig of a car. You picture our charges as hitchhikers on the side of the road. You imagine yourself as a young male and me as a young chain-smoking female. You invent cities, states, a vast nation that has never, ever existed. None of that is real.
You and I are about as old as the planet is, and we really don’t spend that much time near or on its surface. We occupy many planes of reality, but none of them intersect with the Union of North America.
But after the Hell trip, man, whatever gets you through the days.
If the boy, that kid Ulf, if he was so evil, I said, then why did we see him? Shouldn’t he have gone to Hell?
You’d think so, she said, but it doesn’t work like that. There is no one right religion. They’re all right. Whatever you believe, for yourself personally, you get. Buddhists get reincarnation and the chance to continually improve. Christians get Heaven or Hell; so do the Hebrews. Atheists go into the ground. We got Ulf because somewhere, somewhere deep in that fucking twisted little mind, there was a seed of Buddhist belief. So he gets the chance to prove himself. Starting as a fly on a dungheap somewhere in England.
Every so “often”, she said, as the drug seemed to be wearing off, I get you “stoned and while the drug’s” got your mental barriers down, I try to explain “things to you and every time, every damned” time, it all slips “away when the drug wears off” again. Sometimes “I wonder why” I try.
“Why do you” try? I asked.
“I’ve never come up with an answer that fully satisfies” me yet, she said. Maybe I “crave the challenge. Maybe I love you. Maybe I’m stupid, or crazy. My current working” theory is that it’s a combination of all “those, and probably other, as-yet-undetermined factors.”
“Do you believe me?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t know. It all makes sense, and yet —”
“Doesn’t matter,” she said, “if you believe me or not. It’s the truth, it’s the gods’ truth, and one of these days maybe you’ll remember in the morning.”
The fire was dead and the morning was coming up bright and chill. Soon the day’s dry heat would wash across the desert, but for now I was shivering.
“How you feeling?” Kayla said.
“Had the weirdest dream,” I said.
“Yeah? What about?”
But it was gone. “Don’t remember,” I said. “Just know it was weird.”
She shook her head, exasperated at something. “Get in the car.” She rose, shrugged off her tatty pink blanket, stretched. “Long day on the road.”
And daylight, now. On the side of the road, her thumb outstretched, a young girl with bright red sunglasses and hair cut in a dark bob, just brushing her cheekbones. Behind her, a wrought-iron arch with CIMETIÈRE GARE-LE-LOUP CEMETERY in rusting iron capitals. All the other cars ignoring her, streaming past, an arterial flow of metal and glass, plastic and volatiles. We pull over to the side, gravel crunching, decelerating gently, coming to a stop with our bumper inches from her skirt-clad knees. She doesn’t flinch.
She clambers into the back, sets her small plastic backpack on the seat beside her.
“Where to, hon?” says Kayla.
“Garnton,” says the young woman. Her eyes, behind the crimson lenses, are narrow, Japanese.
“Sure,” says Kayla. “This here’s Dan, I’m Kayla.”
“Mitsu,” says the girl. “I’m lucky you were going my way.”
“We always are,” says Kayla. She lays the hammer down, and we spray gravel as we launch back into the traffic.
“Garnton,” I say. “That’s up near Vanmire Creek, right?”
“Yes,” says the girl. “Just south of Mount Sturban.”
The open road. Forever.
Originally published in On Spec Spring 2004.
“ ‘Resurrection Radio’ from Patrick Johanneson is another quality piece. Thought-provoking and original, it’s a fresh look at spirituality from a very down to earth position, written with real empathy. Its ending is particularly intelligent, the sort of thing to send you back to the beginning hunting for clues. Suddenly, it’s staring you in the face, but you’d never suspect. Foreshadowing at its best.”
—Martin Jenner, in SF Crowsnest
“Patrick Johanneson’s Resurrection Radio is a chiller blended with the narrative trickery of someone like Bret Easton Ellis or Chuck Palahnuik, less meditative than some of the other stories in the issue but brilliant for all that, stirring a road-trip and psychopomps, hitchhikers and peyote into a deft, mesmerising whole.”
—Nelson Stanley, in the British Fantasy Society’s website