JOEY EASED THE RENTAL CHEVY PAST THE STOP SIGN AND PARKED ON the narrow shoulder, on the dead-end side of the three-way intersection, directly across from the entrance to Coal Valley Road. He switched off the headlights but left the engine running.
Overhung by autumnal trees, those two lanes of wet blacktop led out of the deepening twilight and vanished into shadows as black as the oncoming night. The pavement was littered with colorful leaves that glowed strangely in the gloom, as though irradiated.
His heart pounded, pounded.
He closed his eyes and listened to the rain.
When at last he opened his eyes, he half expected that Coal Valley Road wouldn't be there any more, that it had been just one more hallucination. But it hadn't vanished. The two lanes of blacktop glistened with silver rain. Scarlet and amber leaves glimmered like a scattering of jewels meant to lure him into the tunnel of trees and into the deeper darkness beyond.
But there it was.
Twenty-one years ago in Coal Valley, a six-year-old boy named Rudy DeMarco had tumbled into a sinkhole that abruptly opened under him while he was playing in his backyard. Rushing out of the house in response to her son's screams, Mrs. DeMarco had found him in an eight-foot-deep pit, with sulfurous smoke billowing from fissures in the bottom. She scrambled into the hole after him, into heat so intense that she seemed to have descended through the gates of Hell. The floor of the pit resembled a furnace grate; little Rudy's legs were trapped between thick bars of stone, dangling into whatever inferno was obscured by the rising smoke. Choking, dizzy, instantly disoriented, Mrs. DeMarco nevertheless wrenched her child from the gap in which he was wedged. As the unstable floor of the pit quaked and cracked and crumbled under her, she dragged Rudy to the sloped wall, clawed at the hot earth, and frantically struggled upward. The bottom dropped out altogether, the sinkhole rapidly widened, the treacherous slope slid away beneath her, but still she pulled her boy out of the seething smoke and onto the lawn. His clothes were ablaze. She covered him with her body, trying to smother the flames, and her clothes caught on fire. Clutching Rudy against her, she rolled with him in the grass, crying for help, and her screams seemed especially loud because her boy had fallen silent. More than his clothes had burned: Most of his hair was singed away, one side of his face was blistered, and his small body was charred. Three days later, in the Pittsburgh hospital to which he had been taken by air ambulance, Rudy DeMarco died of catastrophic burns.
For sixteen years prior to the boy's death, the people of Coal Valley had lived above a subterranean fire that churned relentlessly through a network of abandoned mines, eating away at untapped veins of anthracite, gradually widening those underground corridors and shafts. While state and federal officials debated whether the hidden conflagration would eventually burn itself out, while they argued about various strategies for extinguishing it, while they squandered fortunes on consultants and interminable hearings, while they strove indefatigably to shift the financial responsibility for the clean-up from one jurisdiction to another, Coal Valley's residents lived with carbon-monoxide monitors to avoid being gassed in the night by mine-fire fumes that seeped, up through the foundations of their homes. Scattered across the town were vent pipes, tapping the tunnels below to release smoke from the fire and perhaps minimize the build-up of toxic gases in nearby houses; one even thrust up from the elementary-school playground.
With the tragic death of little Rudy DeMarco, the politicians and bureaucrats were at last compelled to take action. The federal government purchased the threatened properties, beginning with those houses directly over the most hotly burning tunnels, then those over secondary fires, then those that were still only adjacent to the deep, combustible rivers of coal. During the course of the following year, as homes were condemned and the residents moved away, the reasonably pleasant village of Coal Valley gradually became a ghost town.
By that rainy night in a long-ago October, when Joey had taken the wrong road back to college, only three families remained in Coal Valley. They had been scheduled to move out before Thanksgiving.
In the year that followed the departure of those last residents, bulldozers were to knock down every building in the village. Every scrap of the demolished structures was to be hauled away. The streets, cracked and hoved from the pressures of the hidden fires below, would be torn up. The hills and fields would be seeded with grass, restoring the land to something resembling a natural state, and the mine fires would be left to burn—some said for a hundred or two hundred years—until the veins of coal were at last exhausted.
Geologists, mining engineers, and officials from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources believed that the fire would eventually undermine four thousand acres—an area far greater than that encompassed by the abandoned village. Consequently, Coal Valley Road was likely to suffer sudden subsidence at numerous points along much of its length—a deadly danger to motorists. More than nineteen years ago, therefore, after the ghost town had been demolished and hauled away, Coal Valley Road had been torn up as well.
It had not been there when he had driven into Asherville the previous day. Now it waited. Leading out of the rain-slashed twilight into an unknown night. The road not taken.
Joey was holding the flask again. Although he had opened it, he had no memory of unscrewing the cap.
If he drank what remained of the Jack Daniel's, the road that led into the dark tunnel of trees might blur, fade, and finally vanish. Perhaps it was wise not to pin any hopes on miraculous second chances and supernatural redemption. For all he knew, if he put the Chevy in gear and followed that strange highway, he would be changing his life not for better but for worse.
He brought the flask to his lips.
Thunder rolled through a cold Heaven. The rataplan of rain swelled until he could not even hear the idling car engine.
The whiskey fumes smelled as sweet as salvation.
Rain, rain, torrential rain. It washed the last light out of the bleak day.
Although he was beyond the touch of the rain, the heavy ,pall of descending darkness was inescapable. Night entered the car: a familiar companion with whom he had passed uncountable lonely hours in troubled contemplation of a life gone wrong.
He and the night had finished many bottles of whiskey together, and eventually he had always been granted the surcease of sleep, if nothing else. All he had to do was put the flask against his lips, tip it, and drain the few ounces that it still contained, whereupon this dangerous temptation to embrace hope would surely pass. The mysterious highway would vanish, and then he could get on with a life that, although lacking hope, could be passed in a safe, blessed anesthetic haze.
He sat for a long time. Wanting a drink. Not drinking.
Joey wasn't aware of the car approaching along the county road behind him until its headlights suddenly shot through the back window of the Chevy. A virtual explosion of light shattered over him, as though from an onrushing locomotive with one giant, blazing Cyclopean eye. He glanced at the rearview mirror but winced and looked away as the bright reflection stung his eyes.
The car roared past him and hung a hard left onto Coal Valley Road. It cast up such a heavy plume of dirty water from the puddled pavement that it was impossible for Joey to see any details of it or get a glimpse of its driver.
As the spray washed down the side window of the Chevy and the glass cleared again, the other vehicle slowed. Its taillights dwindled until it had gone perhaps a hundred yards along the colonnade of trees, where it came to a full stop on the roadway.
"No," Joey said.
Out there on Coal Valley Road, the red brake lights were like the radiant eyes of a demon in a dream, frightening but compelling, alarming but mesmerizing.
He turned his head and stared at the night-cloaked county road in front of him, the route that he'd taken twenty years ago. It had been the wrong highway then, but it was the right one now. After all, he wasn't headed back to college as he had been that night; now he was forty years old and bound for Scranton, where he had to catch a commuter flight to Pittsburgh in the morning.
On Coal Valley Road, the taillights glowed. The strange car waited.
Scranton. Pittsburgh. Vegas. The trailer park. A shabby but safe little life. No hope ... but no nasty surprises, either.
Red brake lights. Beacons. Shimmering in the delude.
Joey capped the flask without drinking from it.
He switched on the headlights and put the Chevy in gear.
"Jesus, help me," he said.
He drove across the intersection and onto Coal Valley Road.
Ahead of him, the other car began to move again. It quickly picked up speed.
Joey Shannon followed the phantom driver through a veil between reality and some other place, toward a town that no longer existed, toward a fate beyond understanding.
THE WIND AND THE RAIN SHOOK LEAVES FROM THE OVERHANGING TREES and hurled them onto the pavement. They smacked the windshield and clung briefly, batlike shapes that furled their wings and fell away when the wipers swept over them.
Joey remained about a hundred yards behind the other car, not quite close enough to discern what make and model it was. He told himself that he still had time to turn around, drive to the county road, and go to Scranton as he had planned. But he might not have the option of turning back if he got a good look at the car ahead of him. Intuitively he understood that the more he learned about what was happening, the more thoroughly his fate would be sealed. Mile by mile he was driving farther away from the real world, into this otherworldly land of second chances, and eventually the intersection of the county route and Coal Valley Road would cease to exist in the night behind him.
When they had gone only three miles, they came upon a white, two-door Plymouth Valiant—a car that Joey had admired as a kid but hadn't seen in ages. It was stopped at the side of the road, broken down. Three sputtering red flares had been set out along the shoulder of the highway, and in their intense light, as if by a dark miracle of transubstantiation, the falling rain appeared to be a downpour of blood.
The vehicle that he was following slowed, almost halted beside the Valiant, then accelerated again.
Someone in a black, hooded raincoat stood beside the disabled Plymouth, holding a flashlight. The stranded motorist waved at him, imploring him to stop.
Joey glanced at the dwindling taillights of the car that he had been pursuing. It would soon pass around a bend, over a rise, out of sight.
Coasting past the Plymouth, he saw that the person in the raincoat was a woman. A girl, really. Arrestingly pretty. She appeared to be no older than sixteen or seventeen'
Under the hood of the coat, her flare-tinted face reminded him, curiously, of the haunting countenance on the statue of the Virgin Mother at Our Lady of Sorrows, back in Asherville. Sometimes the Virgin's serene ceramic face had just such a forlorn and spectral aspect in the crimson glow of the flickering votive candles arrayed in red glasses beneath it.
As Joey rolled slowly past this girl, she stared entreatingly, and in her porcelain features he saw something that alarmed him: a disturbing premonition, a vision of her lovely face without eyes, battered and bloody. Somehow he knew that if he didn't stop to help her, she would not live to see the dawn but would die violently in some black moment of the storm.
He parked on the shoulder ahead of the Valiant and got out of the rental car. He was still soaked from having stood in the cleansing downpour outside Henry Kadinska's office little more than twenty minutes ago, so the pounding rain didn't bother him, and the cold night air wasn't half as chilling as the fear that had filled him since he had learned of his inheritance.
He hurried along the pavement, and the girl came forward to meet him at the front of her disabled Valiant.
"Thank God, you stopped," she said. Rain streamed off her hood, a glistening veil in front of her face.
He said, "What happened?"
"It just failed."
"While you were rolling?"
"Yeah. Not the battery."
"How do you know?"
"I've still got power."
Her eyes were dark and huge. Her face glowed in the flare light, and on her cheeks, raindrops glistened like tears.
"Maybe the generator," he said.
"You know cars?"
"I don't," she said. "I feel so helpless."
"We all do," Joey said.
She gave him a peculiar look.
She was just a girl, and at her age she was surely naive and not yet fully aware of the world's cruelty. Yet Joey Shannon saw more in her eyes than he could comprehend.
"I feel lost," she said, evidently still referring to her lack of knowledge about cars.
He unlatched and raised the hood. "Let me have your light."
At first she seemed not to know what he meant, but then she handed the flashlight to him. "I think it's hopeless."
While rain pounded against his back, he checked the distributor cap to be sure that it was seated securely, examined the spark-plug leads, scrutinized the battery cables.
"If you could just give me a ride home," she said, "my dad and I can come back here tomorrow."
"Let me try it first," he said, closing the hood.
"You don't even have a raincoat," she worried.
"You'll catch your death."
"It's only water—they baptize babies in it."
Overhead, the branches of the mountain laurels clattered in a bitter gust of wind, shaking loose a flock of dead leaves that whirled briefly but then settled to the ground as spiritlessly as lost hopes sifting down through the darkness of a troubled heart.
He opened the driver's door, got behind the steering wheel, and put the flashlight on the seat beside him. The keys were in the ignition. When he attempted to start the engine, there was no response whatsoever. He tried the headlights, and they came on at full power.
In front of the car, the girl was caught in the bright beams. She was no longer tinted red. Her black raincoat hung like a cowled robe, and in its folds, her face and hands were white and gloriously radiant.
He stared at her for a moment, wondering why he had been brought to her and where they would find themselves by the time this strange night had ended. Then he switched off the headlights.
The girl stood once more in the lambent light of the flares, lashed by crimson rain.
After leaning across the seat to lock the passenger door, Joey got out of the Valiant, taking the flashlight and the keys with him. "Whatever's wrong, I don't have what's needed to fix it." He slammed the driver's door and locked it as well. "You're right—the best I can do is give you a lift. Where do you live?"