The Ninth Chapter.
We found the road like it had been waiting for us.
Drive down Highway 4, north of the city, and you'll pass it, a moment of fear, an uncertain, uncomfortable memory as from a fading nightmare. I've grown to know such moments. They've been a part of my life since my encounter with the Four Horsemen. Frightful, soul damaging: each passerby bares their darkest heart to me without ever knowing. From an unforgotten ex who could never again be embraced to the brutal assault for which no reparation could be made. Private pain and public humiliation. Suicide attempts. Things that could no longer be repaired.
I saw a broken man the day before, bowed over, prematurely aged. He had worked for a time in Saudi Arabia. He made good money in construction. Then some incidents of, possibly, terrorism occurred. They had been blamed on the illegal liquor trade, because the government insisted the country housed no terrorists. He was convicted on non-existent evidence. He spent months in prison, sentenced to hundreds of lashes. In an example of what the country considers mercy, these were given in amounts that would likely not kill him. His back was permitted to heal, and then he was flogged again. And again. He grew ill. Food was poor, and sparse. The toilet into which he voided and puked was an open sewer. Medical care in the prison was non-existent.
He came to believe he had committed some crime, somewhere in his life, because the belief made the pain bearable.
The wind blows, coldly.
I want to sell the store, shut myself up, live alone forever. Gospherus sympathizes. He holds onto his cactus and tells me he often feels that way, just by himself. I resolve again to head north, seek the road, and find my answers.
"I will leave my cactus here," Gospherus explains. I tell him again he didn't need to come. "No. I will come. But my cactus is safer here. If we do not return, it may survive until someone else comes into the house. Cacti can survive for a very long time without water."
"Are you certain?"
Oh, yes. I have read a good deal about cacti."
"No! Are you sure you want to come? This is my delusion, not yours, Gos."
"It is a mystery. I want to learn the solution. And I think of those children I saw, singing. Remember, on the channel we couldn't ever find again?"
"I believe the people they sang about would never turn away from a friend they could help."
We park on the shoulder of Highway Four. The gravel crackles and crunches beneath our wheels. I know where to go like I know the secrets of the broken man. And when I step from the car, I see the road fade into view.
"I do not see it," says Gospherus.
I again remind him that he does not have to follow where I insist on going. He follows me anyway, into what must look to him like bare trees and frozen ground, and both of us, I suppose, faded from the view of passing transports.
Rural roads should be picturesque. This one suggests Gustave Doré's illustrations of the Inferno. Canto Thirteen. I expect to see the harpies, the suicides transformed to twisted trees. Yet when I look over at Gospherus, he seems to be marveling, as a child would, at the wonder of the woods, the occasional patches of snow. Perhaps the weeks since the Horsemen have predisposed me to see evil where it does not dwell.
I cannot explain the fear that robs my breath when the house comes into view. Yet for all that, it differs only in incidental ways from ours. The architecture dates to the same era, and it has been kept in a fair state of repair.
"Well, howdy!" says a voice. I startle and then, so does Gospherus.
They might have, I grant, posed for the American Gothic painting, but only if someone other than Wood had painted it, someone talented but imprecise. The symmetry is off, the colour of their skin, inexact. I catch a faint smell of decay. Something animal shuffles out of view, back behind the house.
"Howdy," the man again says. He's going bald. His face bears a dark simulacrum of a joviality. "Won't you stop in for a spell?"
She smiles, a smile like the guest of honour at a party she doesn't want to attend. "I'm about to cook up some vittles," she says.
Gospherus gags and coughs and then falls to his hands and knees on the frozen ground and throws up.
The couple stands before us, beaming.