Tom Piccirilli is the author of more than twenty novels including SHADOW SEASON, THE COLD SPOT, THE COLDEST MILE, and A CHOIR OF ILL CHILDREN. He's won two International Thriller Awards and four Bram Stoker Awards, as well as having been nominated for the Edgar, the World Fantasy Award, the Macavity, and Le Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire.
His latest novel, to be released June 12, is called THE LAST KIND WORDS, and some reviewers are already calling it one of the best things Piccirilli has ever done. Author James Rollins had this to say: "Piccirilli straddles genres with the boldness of the best writers today, blending suspense and crime fiction into tight, brutal masterpieces."
Just yesterday, Piccirilli did a fantastic interview over at Dead End Follies (check it out here) and today on his mad media blitz I'm very happy to welcome him to Psycho Noir. Here's a brand new story from the master, from the anthology FANTASTIC STORIES OF THE IMAGINATION.
Riding the Bus
My mother had a recurring nightmare about a bus. It would pull up in front of the house in the early morning darkness and wait at the curb. Everybody she knew who’d died would be on board. They’d turn their lifeless eyes to her and beckon for her to join them. The door to the bus would open and a driver, hidden in the shadows, but who she suspected was her own dead father, would hold out his hand to her.
Occasionally, when my mother moved tiredly and nervously around the kitchen, purple-ish half-circles under eyes, my old man would ask, “The dream again?” She’d nod and smile in embarrassment at first, giggling sadly under her breath, and then her face would fold in on itself as she struggled to hold back tears. They’d never discuss the details in front of me, but once, crouched at the top of the stairs, I overheard her on the phone with my aunt giving the particulars. About how she was certain my grandfather sat behind the wheel although she couldn’t make out his features in the depths of the black bus.
It scared the hell out of me. I was already a hypersensitive bookwormy kid prone to a vivid imagination. Soon I was dreaming about the bus pulling up to the curb, all those pale hands waving and inviting her on board. I’d been to funerals, I knew some of the dead. My mother’s brother who’d been hit by a car two winters earlier, a great-aunt who’d passed away in an elderly care facility we always visited on Easter. I recognized faces, their blue lips whispering words I couldn’t quite hear.
By the time I was ten they had turned their gazes on me. My dad had died of cancer by then, and he’d taken over driving the bus. The door would flash open and he’d grin at me, summoning me with an almost friendly gesture, his large powerful hand so pale that it almost glowed in the dim moonlight.
I’d wake up sobbing and moaning. My mother felt so guilty that she’d passed the nightmare on to me that we went to group counseling and then had separate sessions with the psychiatrist. I spent three months talking it out with a cold-eyed condescending shrink before I wised up and pretended the dream was gone.
So now I had to ask myself again why, at the age of forty-six, I was riding a fucking Greyhound from New York to L.A.
It had something to do with my losing my driver’s license thanks to my racking up three DUIs in quick succession this winter. After a lifetime of teetotaling I’d found out in the last year that I had all the earmarks of being an alcoholic. My writing career was in the shitter, my first marriage had bottomed out, and my second marriage had soured before we’d gotten home from the honeymoon. My cat was gone. My dog was dead. My plants hadn’t made it. My ma had climbed on the bus six months ago. I’d only had the dream once since her funeral, but I’d screamed so loud that the gay couple in the upstairs apartment had called the cops.
After twenty-two soft selling novels I couldn’t find a New York publisher to give me a last chance. I’d Kindled a couple of recent efforts and had so far had made a grand total of forty-two bucks. The bank stepped in and repossessed my car and most of my furniture, and the landlord was sick of waiting for the rent and had given me the heave.
I was now beginning a new career as a housesitter. A screenwriter friend had taken pity on me and decided to pay me a few bucks to watch over his home in the valley while he went off to Fiji to film his latest epic for the next four months. It was a kind offer, but all things being equal I would’ve rather been a sand mite wrangler in Fiji than his houseboy in L.A.
I couldn’t fly. In one of my drunken blackouts I’d gotten shitstorm crazy in an airport bar and security had been forced to chase me through Terminal B while I screamed epithets about Christian rock, the state of modern literature, women in general, and our president’s economic stimulus plan in particular.
The four day bus ride should be enough time for me to finish up going cold turkey after a fairly rough bout with the bottle last weekend. I should also be able to tighten up the spec script I was hoping to show my friend’s agent. It was an action picture about a sixteen year old girl cyborg who falls in love with the captain of the football team only to learn that he’s a cyborg too sent by terrorists to assassinate a senator on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The script fell apart in the third act during the cyborg smack down that ends with the two robotic teens having their first kiss together and their nuclear reactors bringing apart the apocalypse. No matter how many times I rewrote it I couldn’t control my subconscious from bringing about a global meldown.
My fellow passengers seemed like an eclectic bunch. Several college kids, a woman who looked like a welfare mother of two little boys, a couple of elderly folks getting shipped coast to coast by their kids, and other middle aged mooks like myself who were making a final run to the sun. They downloaded books on their e-readers, chattered on their phones, texted, or played around on their iPads or laptops like me.
The driver was a morbidly obese Santa type, bald with a well-trimmed white beard. He liked getting on the mike and chattering about some historical or kitschy site nearby. He really played to his audience and got them giggling, even led them in a rousing rendition of Sweet Home, Alabama even though we were in Pittsburgh by then.
We stopped every six hours at truck stop diners to stretch our legs, grab something to eat, and . Santa told us that he’d be with us for the long haul, no changing of the drivers like the bus line sometimes did, so he’d have to legally park for five hour stretches each morning between two and seven a.m.
Nobody seemed to mind except me. I’d really been hoping for him to pull a long haul, a straight run across the country with the hammer down. I couldn’t sleep. I was already getting shaky. I knew my sweat smelled like Jameson’s. I couldn’t get the cyborgs to do anything but blow the world up. We’d only been on the road for ten hours and already I was cramping and as edgy as a box of razors.
It was probably a good thing that I couldn’t pass out. I worried that being on the bus would reignite the nightmare. I could imagine screaming and scaring the others to such a degree that they rose up against me and dumped me out on the side of a highway in the middle of some piney wood someplace. I saw Santa stomping on my laptop and kicking it in a ravine. I listened to them singing together as they rode away without me.
At two in the morning the driver pulled into a rest stop, reclined his seat, stuck an inflatable plastic pillow behind his head, and fell asleep in forty-five seconds flat. Most everybody else was getting shuteye as well. I climbed down off the bus and wandered into the café, got a little coffee and tried hard not to look like a homeless street drunk begging nickels even though I was damn close to being exactly that. The teenage waitress doubled as a lot lizard whore and invited me to join her in the stockroom for biblical relations. She said it would only cost seventy-five dollars and she’d give me a free slice of blueberry pie afterward. Appealing as that was I had to pass for financial reasons and drifted back to the bus.
I toyed with the script for a while. I also toyed with a short story, the first chapter of my memoirs, and the opening salvo of an angry manifesto I was going to send my former agent. I had just finished tapping out the phrase, “You syphilitic indulger in bestiality” when the youngest kid of the slumbering welfare mother climbed off his seat and wandered up the aisle. He bopped and wove and knocked into the shoulders of sleeping passengers, who snorted and got the boy giggling.
He took the empty seat beside me and whispered, “I can’t sleep.”
“Me neither, kid.”
“My name’s Robbie.”
“Where are you going?”
“New York kicked me out.”
“It doesn’t love me anymore.”
“We’re going to Nevada. My mother wants to be a card dealer. She says she can make a lot of money.”
I’d gotten a good look at the mother. She had the fake bazooms but not much of a face. “Tell her good luck from me.”
“I’m with my mom and my brother Jason. How come you’re by yourself?”
“My wife left me.”
“She found somebody who makes more money and has a bigger penis.”
“Robbie!” the mother shouted. “Come away from that man!”
“I’ve got to go.”
The kid stepped up the aisle and I went back to my manifesto.
The words poured out of me as I flipped from one project to the next. None of it was good, but at least it was there. I had to find my way back into the game somehow. My fingers tore across the silent keypad, my scalp slithering with sweat and the flesh at the back of my neck crawling. My thoughts raged, my work suffered, I composed love letters to my ex-wives, and the insults grew more vicious towards my agent. The hours died slowly but I managed to smother them one by one until Santa finally woke up, hit the head, got himself a huge breakfast of pancakes and sausage, and we were back on the road.
I closed my laptop, slumped back in my sleep, and tried to imagine what Fiji would be like. All I could see were burnished almond women in grass skirts and a Hard Rock Café out on the sand somewhere. Waves of burning blue rushing up reefs of volcanic rock. The same old jealousy went for my throat the way it always did.
I read. Sentences trailed past but left no impression. Everything felt second rate to my own brilliance. I was vain but you had to be vain to have lasted as long as I had in the grinding wheels of the New York literary establishment. You had to be obsessive and compulsive and filled to your eyeballs with a crazed kind of self-confidence. I had the crazy part, I wasn’t sure about the rest. My hands trembled. My lips were dry. By the time we stopped for lunch I was nearly doubled-over from cramps and I was ready to smash a liquor store window to nab some Dewars.
The next stop was Indianapolis. A few folks got off, a couple more got on. They were indistinguishable from one another. Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch America, and sons, and daughters. The seat beside me remained empty. Folks vibed that I was trouble. They shared conversation and snacks and offered each other water and soda, and they all kept the hell away from me. I didn’t blame them. I was glad nobody was making me socialize to even the limited extent one could at the back end of a bus. I opened my laptop again. My fingers kept moving over the keypad. My own words glared at me.
Mile after mile we continued on. I thought Santa had to be completely insane to choose this kind of life for himself. I glanced out the window at the truckers roaring past and thought they all had to be psychotics recently released from mental wards. Who else would willingly live out their lives on highways leading nowhere?
It started raining in southern Illinois and the storm was soon so savage that Santa was forced to hole up under an overpass. The rain lashed down. The kid Robbie and his brother Jason were the only cheerful voices to be heard. The rest of us mulled silently or spoke in hushed, frightened murmurs. Santa chattered on his little microphone. Sometimes with the passengers, sometimes with his bosses and fellow bus drivers, discussing the weather and getting notices about washed out roads up ahead. I’d skipped breakfast and lunch and my stomach was doing wonky things. I had a couple candy bars. They’d have to do. The sugar burned through my system like a hot shot injection. I hadn’t slept in more than thirty hours. I’d been constipated for nearly twice as long. My hands shook so badly now that I couldn’t even write anymore. Santa turned up the heat until it felt like a sweat lodge. My chin dripped. I wondered how long it would take for me to rid myself of my poison, if ever.
Santa started to sing a 50s crooner tune. The others laughed and applauded. They sang along. The rain came down like a typhoon. I imagined the bus starting to float away, sharks and killer whales hammering at the windows. Some dolphin might take pity on me and carry my laptop back to dry land. I’d be at the bottom of the sea but at least my nasty letters would live on.
Eventually the storm eased up enough that we could limp forward for another hour. Santa pulled us into a truck stop and I jumped off and threw up in a raging gutter. Robbie stepped over and said, “You okay, Tom?”
“I’ll make it, buddy.”
“Maybe you need something to eat.”
“I think you might be right.”
“I’m hungry too.”
“Let’s go in together.”
We entered the crowded diner. Every trucker for fifty miles around was packed inside, drying off, taking a break from the storm. The kid’s mother and brother had grabbed a booth in the corner. She looked timid and spooked. She and her older son shared a plate of fries, no burger, no other food in sight, drinking only water. I thought of her dealing cards in Vegas, picking up ten thousand dollar tips from fatcat players pulling down millions. I couldn’t picture it, but I couldn’t picture a lot of things.
I had enough cash left to splurge on a turkey club for myself and a couple burgers for Robbie and his family. I sat at their booth. We all ate ravenously. The mother said nothing more than “Thank you,” and I said nothing more than “You’re welcome” to her. Robbie asked me three hundred and ninety-seven questions and by the end of his run I thought maybe I’d be able to nap a little on the bus.
Santa called the passengers back on board. We clambered back to our seats and as night set in shut my eyes and tried to fade. After an hour of pretending, I sighed and sat up again. My hands were steady. I worked on the script. I managed to keep the cyborgs from bringing about nuclear Armageddon.
Hours had passed. The storm kept playing tag with us all across the Interstate. The moon was gone. No other headlights or brake lights appeared on the road. The world had shrunk to a sphere of night that we traveled within inch by inch, mile by mile. I wanted a drink, but not as badly as before. I took my minor victories wherever I could.
Others moaned in their sleep, hands flashing out. They muttered names. I thought I heard a guttural male voice call out mine. I got to my feet and looked forward and back. I heard my name again.
“Who is that?” I whispered.
I stood and walked halfway up the aisle. The closer I got to the driver, the less it seemed to be Santa. Lost in shadow, he no longer had a face. His silhouette was slim up there behind the wheel. Where was the gut? Where was the white beard? I couldn’t make out any features yet, but the profile was all wrong. My breathing went shallow. I gritted my teeth. I took another few steps. I was almost up to that yellow line they always make you stand behind. Moonlight ran like molten silver. I cleared my throat hoping he might turn in my direction. The driver didn’t look at me. I coughed louder. I sounded like I had tuberculosis. Passengers stirred. I took another step and glanced left.
My old man was sitting there. I blinked at him. He blinked back at me. I didn’t know what to say or do. I thought I should bolt but a sudden surge of shame kept me rooted where I was.
“Are you my father?” I asked.
“Why are you here?”
“What’s that mean?”
“What does what mean?”
“You showing up on the bus.”
“I don’t know.”
”Am I dead?”
He seemed as lost as me. “Is there still time?”
“Ask your mother.”
Like I was seven years old and asking about a buck for the ice cream man. “Where is she?”
“You know where she is.”
Of course I did. I staggered up the aisle and crossed the yellow line. In the shadows I could see the faintest glint of her eyes, as if she had been crying. Perhaps she had been. Perhaps that’s what it meant to drive the bus.
I said, “Hello, ma.”
“It’s much easier now,” she said.
“Yes, it would have to be.”
“We’re all here for you. Everyone who ever loved you.”
“Not everyone but most of them.”
“All of us care.”
“I know. You telling me I have to come with you, ma?”
“No, it’s your choice.”
I glanced back at my old man. He stared at me, the barest expression of amusement playing on his face. I remembered him fighting for every last breath while the cancer ate out his lungs. He didn’t give up for a second. He knew no matter how much agony you had to go through, life was worth it. My mother, my real mother, not this dream shade of her, never gave in even when the struggle seemed like it would crush her into the dirt. The great-aunt we used to visit on Easter dogged for every breath she could get out of her oxygen tank. My Uncle Kirby, the cong had to stick three grenades practically up his ass before he went down.
And all the rest of them. None of them had suicided. None of them had been given a break or would’ve taken one if they had been. It was in my blood to steal every second that was left to me. I might’ve been the biggest loser of the bunch but that didn’t mean I was going to swing the wheel and hit the wall on purpose.
They waited patiently, silently, eternally. I said, “Then I want to run out my string.”
“There will just be more pain and disappointment,” my mother told me. “Your director friend never set up a meeting for you with his agent.”
“You’ll return home even more bitter.”
“Yeah, but I’ll make it back.”
“We’ll keep visiting. We can’t help ourselves.”
“I know. And maybe one night I’ll jump on board.”
“But not tonight?”
“No, but thank you for coming for me.”
I went back to my seat and finally fell asleep. When I woke up the sun was burning overhead like a golden hammer, and Robbie was beside me, his hand on my shoulder.
“You were talking,” he said.
“Yeah? What did I say?”
“Something about cyborgs.”
I thought, Fuck Fiji. And fuck L.A. too.
I decided to get off in Vegas instead. The welfare mother didn’t have much of a face but she had the bazooms and she was better than average in the sack. We shared a cheap motel for two days while she looked for a job as a dealer. The morning of the second day I bet against a fatcat shooting craps and made eight grand in ten minutes. It wasn’t enough for a new life, but it was a start. I took my minor victories wherever I could.