The Night Country

A Novel

Stewart O'Nan

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Excerpt from The Night Country by Stewart O'Nan. Copyright © 2003 by Stewart O'Nan. To be published in October, 2003 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.


COME, DO YOU HEAR IT? The wind-murmuring in the eaves, scouring the bare trees. How it howls, almost musical, a harmony of old moans. The house seems to breathe, an invalid. Leave your scary movie marathon; this is better than TV. Leave the lights out. The blue glow follows you down the hall. Go to the window in the unused room, the cold seeping through the glass. The moon is risen, caught in nodding branches. The image holds you, black trunks backlit, one silver ray fallen across the deck, beckoning. It's a romance, this invitation to lunacy (lycanthropy, a dance with the vampire), elemental yet forbidden, tempting, something remembered in the blood.

Don't you ever wonder?

Don't you want to know?

Come then, come with us, out into the night. Come now, America the lovesick, America the timid, the blessed, the educated, come stalk the dark backroads and stand outside the bright houses, calm as murderers in the yard, quiet as deer. Come, you slumberers, you lumps, arise from your legion of sleep and fly over the wild woods. Come, all you dreamers, all you zombies, all you monsters. What are you doing anyway, paying the bills, washing the dishes, waiting for the doorbell? Come on, take your keys, leave the bowl of candy on the porch, put on the suffocating mask of someone else and breathe. Be someone you don't love so much, for once. Listen: like the children, we only have one night.

It'll be fun, trust me. We're not going to get caught. It's a game anyway, a masquerade. This is the suburbs; nothing happens here.

So come, friends, strangers, lovers, neighbors. Come out of your den with the big-screen TV, come out of your warm house and into the cool night. Smell the wet leaves crushed to mush on the driveway, a stale mix of dust and coriander in the wind. It's the best time of year up here, the only season you want from us, our pastoral past-witch hunts and woodsmoke, the quaintly named dead in mossy churchyards. Never mind that it's all gone, the white picket fences easy-to-clean vinyl, the friendship quilts stitched in the Dominican, this is still a new
dn0 England, garden-green, veined with black rivers and massacres.

Keep coming, past the last square of sidewalk, past the new developments and their sparse lawns, past the stripmalls with the Friendly's and the Chili's and the Gap, the CVS and the Starbucks and the Blockbuster, the KFC and the Chinese, their signs dying comets in the night, traffic signals blinking. Come back through Stagecoach Lane and Blueberry Way and Old Mill Place, solving the labyrinth of raised ranches where the last kids (too old but not wanting to grow up just yet) spill from minivans like commandos, charging across lawns for the front door, their bags rattling. The candy is serious here, full-sized Hershey bars and double Reese's Cups. No, there's no time to stop, no need. That's in the past, the happy childhood we all should have had, did have, half missed, didn't appreciate. Keep your mask on. Say something now, it would give us all away. We're past that, the grinning pumpkins left behind, the stoops and warm windows, the reaching streetlights. Out here there's nothing but muddy creeks and marshland, stone fences guarding back pasture gone wild. Here you can still get lost if you want to.

So come ride with us, driving the night in circles, the trees startled in our headlights. What, you don't recognize the road, the blind curves and crumbled cutbanks twisting so we lean into each other, intimate, even cozy, laughing as we crush the one on the end against the locked door? Remember the incense of cigarettes, the little attendant rituals. Make your fingers a scissors and bum one, it's okay, just don't pocket my lighter. The music's too loud to talk and there's no reason, we're happy trapped in ourselves and the night, this illusion of endlessness-high school, the freedom of wheels. Be seventeen again and ready for the world to love you. Feel the speed through the floor, the air lipping the windows. We're cutting corners, bowing the yellow line, floating over bumps. A deer and that would be the end of us, yet the driver only goes faster, the woods dark as space, still wilderness.

Look around now. Do you remember any of us? Your face has changed; ours are the same, frozen in yearbook photos in the local papers, nudged up against the schoolboard news, the football scores, the library booksale. One week we're history, martyred gods, then forgotten. Our names, you can't even make a guess (it's those kids that died), but you remember what happened. So you know where we're going.

Have you seen it? Not just driven by, but have you stopped and gotten out and looked at the tattered bows and ribbons, the sagging mylar balloons and greening pictures sealed in freezer bags, the plastic crosses and browning flowers, the notes written in girlish script, illegible now, pledging to remember us forever? Have you searched the trunk for scars, amazed at nature, since there's not a mark on it?

Of course not. Even if you were from around here you'd be used to it, maybe even annoyed at the cards and flowers, the shameless sentimentality of teenagers. Don't worry, they'll graduate and move away, and then our younger brothers and sisters, off to college and jobs and marriage, leaving our parents, a mother who dedicates herself to a larger cause, a father who turns inward and strange. One wraps herself in bitterness, another discovers religion. Do they change into gaudy polyester snowbirds or let the house fall down around them? Whatever. Everyone forgets--you have to, isn't that true? Isn't that proof that time is merciful, and not the opposite?

Don't answer. You'll have time to think about it later--an entire night, an eternity. Halloween comes once a year.

Can you breathe inside that thing? It's not too hot, is it?

But look, we're almost there, where the curve bears down on the crossroads. There's no other car, no bad luck, just the tree, the slick of wet leaves on the road, the romance of speed. It's the time of year that kills us, a lack of friction combined with a sideways vector, loose and centrifugal. The police will reconstruct it, pacing off the distances with a limp measuring tape (there's my lighter by the red X), taking statements from the people on-scene, photocopying the long report for the courts and insurance companies. Someone you love has read it or not read it, the contents life-changing and unimportant, checks deposited, money spent.

From the backseat you can't see the tree, or only at the last minute, if you happen to be backseat driving, chickenshit ("Slow down"). There's a second in which we realize we're not going to make the curve--all of us, even the most hopeful. The sound of the road, so constant, disappears, vacuumed into black silence. Light comes back from the trunk, as if the tree has flashed its brights, warning us off at the last second. It is a game of chicken.

"Oh shit," Danielle says; you feel it because she's on your lap, your arms wrapped around her ribs, her perfumed thinness.

"Toe, you fuck"--Kyle, right beside you. (Who? Toe, Kyle, Danielle. See, you've already forgotten. What's my name? What's yours?)

It's a trick (not a treat), but the tree seems to leap out, seems to drive right at us, wide as a semi. Scream if you want to. After the first few times you'll realize it's useless. You'll remember us, and remember to say good-bye. You'll grow as sentimental as our friends and make this night and this drive stand for our lives, the five of us inseparable. So keep your eyes open. Don't cover your face as we leave the road and shoot through the high weeds (sifted by the grille like wheat meeting a thresher). Remember what happens, how it sounds and smells and tastes. Enjoy the ride.

Didn't I tell you? There's a reason we call on you, why this night comes again and again, bad dream within a dream. You think it's torture but you know it's justice. You know the reason. You're the lucky one, remember? You live.


Chapter Two

I KNOW WHAT YOU DID

BROOKS'S WATCH GOES OFF IN THE DARK CAR, military, the way he's set it since basic, another inelastic habit, and tomorrow starts at zero, a clean slate. There is no midnight, just a digital tick at 23:59:59 that crosses off yesterday, says he's got seven more hours before he can go home to no one (just us, sitting in his kitchen, flitting through the woods). The dogs bark, even with the kitchen light on (and you know we love to tease them), but where they're at it's not a problem. All the way to the front door he'll hear them warning him to leave, just get back in the truck and drive, and don't think he hasn't thought about it. If it wasn't for Gram, Brooks thinks he would--leave it all to the realtor--but that might be a lie. He's lived here his entire life, a real townie; he wouldn't know where to go. (He's going nowhere. We've seen him hang up his gun in slow motion, deliberate as a horror flick, and only Toe's twisted enough to make the holster swing, a cheesy temptation. Don't think about us too much, Brooksie.)

His watch goes off, cheap Korean double-beep, and wherever he is around town--cruising the shadowed docks of the Stop'n'Shop, cherrypicking in Battiston's parking lot for fathers trying to get their videos back on time--he can see the fastest route to the tree, like a diagram, the map on the wall at dispatch lit up, Old Farms branching off Country Club, taking him there too late, always too late.

So no one has to tell Brooks it's the anniversary. There's one every night-bee-beep-and he's been dreading it since mid-September, watching the leaves drop, the wind dragging them scratching over the roads, massing drifts in the lee of his truck, maple seed whirlybirds lining the wipers. Weekends he skips his wake-up shower and rakes himself into a dizzy sweat. He knows he can't stop the fall, the painfully clear days, the frost on the grass; it's just the rotation of the earth, its senseless spin around the sun-out of control, no brakes. He's lucky there were no tasteless jokes at the station, no cardboard skeletons squirted with runny vampire blood and shoved in his locker (maybe there are, maybe right now Ravitch is scheming at his console, deciding how far he can go with him; it's a night for phony phone calls).

Tonight it's Battiston's, old faithful, running radar, his cruiser tucked behind the landscaped hump, the darkened cleaners at his back with its still carousel of plastic hanging bags-stiff tuxedos and Cinderella gowns for the fall formal. Last Friday's movies are due. Brooks waits in the dark, the tiny red light shuttling over the face of the scanner, searching for voices. He put too much sugar in his coffee and it's making him twitch. He wants something routine, something dumb, just something to chew on, like the plastic stirrer he realizes he's chomping flat, another bad habit. He stops and folds it into the ashtray among the gum wrappers. He hates midnights; days there are errands to run, favors to do for the chief. He never thought he'd miss them.

Across 44, a silver Mercedes SUV slips into Webster Bank's drive-thru. Brooks files away the state plates. The rest of the plaza's bare, nothing but parking spots-white lines and oil stains, the high lights burning without purpose.

Today's the day, tonight's the night. What does it mean, if anything? Every season has its tragedies, and how can you take back something that's done? It's the argument he used to have with Melissa. Now that she's gone he takes both sides and fights by himself. (We don't have to do anything, just sit and listen in; Danielle says it's cruel, and that starts a different argument.)

He wants a call to stop him from thinking and checks the green screen, the cursor tinting his hands like Frankenstein. He has reason to be hopeful; it's still Cabbage Night, home of soaped windows and pegged eggs and toilet paper orchards, the free delivery of sizzling dog doo, and that staple of Avon, mailbox baseball. Just the aftermath, that's all he wants, one of our fathers pissed-off in his slippers, asking what Brooks is going to do about it--some unhappy taxpayer used to pushing his secretary's buttons. "First I need to take your information," he'll say, letting whatever kids did it get away clean, no muss no fuss, all the while the cherry strobing over the housefront, telling the neighbors everything's under control. "And you said you didn't see a car, just heard the mailbox and that was it?"

This is your big hero. Because there has to be a hero, right, someone to root for? Sorry, he's all we've got, him and Tim, and Tim can't be the hero, can he? (Toe thinks what Tim is going to do is heroic, or at least supercool, but Toe, of course, is a psycho. Danielle thinks it's stupid, that's all she'll say; she's still mad at him. Me--hi, I'm Marco--I'm in the middle. I'm the quiet one. You'll see, nobody listens to me.) I don't even know if we're going to try to do Kyle, he's so messed up. You'll see, he's a good guy, Brooksie, a little whacked after everything but who isn't. It's not a perfect world. It's not a perfect story, just something random that happened to us, bad luck. Of course you can't tell that to Brooks. He's the kind of guy who needs reasons for everything, who needs everything to make sense.

A call, a false alarm, a fire, a barking dog, a heart attack, backup on a car stop, a domestic, a prank, a prowler, but there's nothing coming in, no one screaming down 44 for the Blockbuster. He runs the Mercedes' plates for the hell of it, using two fingers. Enter, send. The screen goes black, the faded light trapped in his eyeballs, then flashes on again.

Registered to a local: Ronald Seung, 25 Candlewood Terrace--no wants or warrants. What did he expect?

He knows he has to relax. Midnights you have to just let time go by. Five minutes into the longest day of his life (by a mile; this one he's taking to the grave), Brooks is clockwatching. He thinks of closing his eyes right there and cooping-ten minutes, that's all he wants. He had to wake up early and clear out of the house so Charity the realtor could show it empty, and now that missing sleep is catching up with him. He's never going to sell the place with the roof looking like that, but he doesn't have the money to fix it; he's going to take a hit on it one way or the other. He dreams of Florida and fishing for tarpon, walking the dogs on a white beach, throwing bony driftwood sticks for them to fight over, but it's just a dream, a cheesy ending to a movie. He's got six years till he can take retirement--seven, really--and Ginger's already ten, Skip's eight; they won't make it.