Forced Perspectives – Snippet 16

CHAPTER FOUR: If You’d Just Try

Leaving Los Angeles at last, Vickery and Castine drove east to San Bernardino, then up through the Cajon Pass into the Mojave Desert. They stopped for half an hour at the little town of Hesperia, thirty-five miles north of San Bernardino, then they were on the freeway again.

During the straight forty-mile drive up the 15 freeway north of Hesperia, Vickery eventually realized that it wasn’t the few other cars on the sun-baked lanes that Castine kept hitching around to look at, but the flat expanses of the desert itself, dotted with star-thistle and saltbush weeds, stretching away to distant foothills.

“Civilization again soon,” he told her finally. “Just a bit more curvature.”

She nodded. “We should have got some Cokes or something,” she said absently, “when we stopped in Hesperia.” She slid lower in her seat, as if to avoid being seen — though the nearest car was a hundred yards ahead of them. “The sun’s going down,” she said faintly, “but I’m glad the sky is still blue.”

Vickery nodded sympathetically without looking away from the onrushing pavement. The Labyrinth afterworld had had the appearance of a desert ringed by low hills, with a highway curving through it, but the turbulent sky there had been various shades of brown.

“I know what you mean,” he said. “When I first moved out here, I liked to drive with the windows down, so I could be sure it was fresh air outside.” At the moment the car’s air-conditioner was set to the maximum, and he was keeping an eye on the temperature and battery gauges.

“What if we were to see that house,” said Castine, with a visible shiver, “now, way out there in the desert?”

Vickery’s lips pulled back from his teeth. “With a figure standing on the roof — beckoning.”

“Shut up! Where the hell do you live, anyway?” She plucked bewilderedly at the denim jacket she was now wearing. “Yesterday I still had a — an identity!”

In Hesperia they had found a Ross Dress for Less store, and she had bought entirely new clothing and shoes; they had stashed her old things, including her billfold, in a locker at the Greyhound bus station. She had kept only her driver’s license, which was now in the front pocket of her new jeans. The Hollywood baseball cap she had left in a shopping cart.

Eventually a little cluster of buildings became visible on the flat horizon ahead, and within a few minutes Vickery was driving past it — an outlet mall, with Target and Skechers and Old Navy stores and broad parking lots ringed with young camphor trees.

“Barstow in just a couple of miles,” he said, “though you can’t see much of it because of the concrete-block sound walls. Not that there’s much to see anyway.”

And in fact tan sound walls were virtually all there was to be seen of Barstow, and Vickery drove through it in only a couple of minutes. Out past the east end of town, the view on either side of the highway was nothing but tumbleweeds and a few anonymous buildings in the distance, and low hills on the horizon.

Castine looked back. “We’re in the desert again,” she said uneasily. “I think you passed it.”

“Nearly there.”

Soon an overpass loomed ahead, and Vickery eased the car into the right lane. “That’s Old Highway 58, coming up,” he said. “When we pass under it, look at the little shelf up where the slope meets the underside of the bridge. That’s where I’ve got my nest. We’ll drive out to it.”

“To talk to ghosts, I suppose,” said Castine as Vickery steered the Saturn around the off-ramp and under the freeway bridge, heading north now. The sun was above the remote bumpy horizon to his left, and he swung the visor to the side to shade his eyes.

“There’s a few things I want to check,” he agreed.

“Ghosts are all idiots.”

“True, but they do love to talk.”

The highway curled around to the northwest for half a mile, and then there were widely spaced houses visible ahead, and Vickery made a left turn onto a two lane road flanked by occasional old trailers and houses set well back from the narrow pavement.

Having traced a long loop, Vickery drove under an overpass of the 15 freeway that they’d traversed a few minutes earlier, and soon steered right, into the driveway of a small trailer park. His own single-wide trailer was around to the rear of the fenced-in area, its back side facing a mile of empty scrub with railroad tracks beyond.

He stopped the Saturn beside a set of wooden steps that led up to a narrow wooden porch and the trailer’s front door, and at last switched off the engine. In the ensuing quiet, he could hear country western music from a nearby radio mingling with the rustle of dry wind in the bordering trees.

Castine had opened the passenger side door and swung her legs out onto the gravel, but paused to stretch before climbing stiffly out. The warm air smelled of heated stone and creosote.

“Eight hours in a coach airline seat, and now two hours in a car,” she said. “I’ll never stand up straight again.” She stepped unsteadily away from the car and shut the door. “I hope we’re not going back to L.A.”

Vickery closed the driver’s side door. “Not today.”

Castine looked over the top of the car at the trailer, probably noting the row of spinning pinwheels mounted on the roof. “Have you got a spare room?”

“The couch in the living room opens to a bed,” he said as he started up the steps. “I’ll take that.”

“Oh, I can take the couch. You’ve already –”

“You’re the guest, no arguing.” He unlocked the door, and it opened with a squeal when he tugged on the knob.

She spread her hands in wry surrender and followed him in.

They were in the dim kitchen, with a round formica-top table and the refrigerator six feet ahead. He switched on a ceiling light and said, “I’ll get the air going,” and hurried to the left, past the table. A moment later a light came on there in a small living room, and then the clatter of an air conditioner started up.

“Come on in,” he said. “It’ll be cool in a couple of minutes.”

Castine stepped around the kitchen table into the living room, and Vickery imagined her response to the old couch and pair of easy chairs, the coffee table with a couple of issues of the New Oxford Review on it, the two standing lamps with yellowed parchment shades, the mismatched rugs partly covering the linoleum floor, and the bookshelves around the windows and over the back door. The place, he realized for the first time, smelled of coffee and motor oil. Could be worse, he thought.

“Get you a drink?” he said. “Sit down, or sprawl on the couch if you’d rather.”

“I think I’ll sprawl.” She lowered herself onto the couch, resting her head on one arm and her ankles up on the other. “This is the first time I’ve relaxed in…lots of hours. Are we for sure safe here, from…whoever?”

“I think so. Drink?”

“Oh…whiskey, if you’ve got any, with ice. Bourbon, rye, scotch, whatever. You think so?”

Vickery stepped into the kitchen. “Well, we’ve certainly got no electronic tags on us now,” he called as he opened a cabinet over the sink, “nothing rational. As for irrational, each of those pinwheels on the roof has a bit of organic stuff — wood, bone, leather –”

“– With a terminally subsumed ghost in it,” guessed Castine.

“Right. Mounted at the hub. When they’re all whirling — and it’s always windy here — they project definitive nullity, nobody here, to most kinds of supernatural scanning.” He fetched down a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon and a couple of glasses. “At least I’m pretty sure they would, if anybody were to come snooping around with dowsing rods or a ghost guide or anything like that.”

He opened the freezer and took an ice-cube tray to the sink and banged the cubes out into a bowl. “I’ve even got Jack Hipple’s pinecone in one of them.”

“Hah!” came Castine’s voice from the living room. “He’s doing some good at last.”

Last year they had learned that frightened or exhausted ghosts — or even animate potentials-of-persons that never quite achieved actual existence — could be fixed forever into organic objects, as Vickery had saved his never-conceived daughter in a copy of The Secret Garden. And the ghost of a magic-dabbler and blackmailer called Jack Hipple had at one point collapsed itself into a pinecone, and Vickery had kept it.

“I hope he gets termites,” said Vickery now.

He shook ice cubes into the glasses, sloshed a liberal measure of bourbon into each, then picked them up and carried them into the living room.

“I’ve seen several of Hipple’s ghost portraits on eBay,” said Castine as she took a glass from him. “Thanks! They go for a couple of hundred bucks, usually. People collect this stuff.”