Fiction Friday: The God-Machine Chronicle
Today’s slice is a look at Road Gospel by Chuck Wendig, as featured in The God-Machine Chronicle Anthology. Road Gospel originally appeared in World of Darkness: Midnight Roads.
Under the light of her crooked lamp, I could see that Mom didn’t look so good. Sitting there in the ratty recliner, I knew she was old, but she wasn’t that old. In the pale light of the poorly lit house, her skin almost looked translucent. The way it hung off her in places, sags of skin unanchored to muscle or bone.
“You sick?” I asked her. “Be straight with me, Mom.”
She waved it off, held out a plate of macaroons. I took one, but noticed that she wasn’t looking at me. Her eyes were searching over my shoulder.
The window. She was looking out the front window.
“It’s night, Mom. What do you think you’re gonna see out that window?”
“Nothing.” She said it too fast. Too sharp and short. Brittle hands tightened.
“You sure? Someone been bothering you?” Not that I knew who such a someone could even be, given that the town appeared to have very few people left in it. I hadn’t seen a moving car all day, and what few people I’d seen weren’t outside for long –— hurrying into their homes, heads down, same haunted shoulder-droop of the minister.
“Eat a cookie,” she said.
I ate a cookie. Stale. Shit.
“Mom,” I said, mouth full of too-dry crumbs, “I just want to tell you that, shit, I’m real sorry about —”
The house lit up like the FBI was outside pointing its ?oodlights into the place. And the ground rumbled with the sound of a grumbling engine. My ears constricted with the shrill keening of tires squealing. And then, laughing. Cackling, even. Someone was outside, bright-ass headlights pointing inside the house.
“This what you’ve been worried about?” I asked.
Mom said nothing, just sank deep into the chair. The woman was shaking.
“Fuck this,” I said, and limped my way down the hall to my old room. As it had always been, my bedroom was a monument to my childhood: baseball trophies, posters of bikini-clad models faded from where the sun came in during the day, models of Hess trucks on a dust-caked bookshelf. Over to the bed I went, reached under, and felt around until I found what I needed.
Louisville slugger. Good thing my parents kept my room like a memorial tomb.
I marched up past Mom and out the door.
Into the lights.
I had to shield my eyes, those headlights were so bright. I could make out a shape just past them — a car, some hot rod like a Mustang or a Camaro from 30 or 40 years back. I held up that bat like I was about to break bad on that beautiful car, screamed at them, told them to leave my poor mother alone. They didn’t move, and I could hear that cackling from inside the car, though in a way it sounded a million miles off, too. Something was wrong here. Something I didn’t understand, not yet.
So I took a step forward, raised the bat with every intention of bashing open one of those headlights —
But the car jacked it into reverse with a shriek of rubber on road.
And then it gunned it back down the street. The chorus of hoots and cackles fading with red brake lights that looked more than a little like a pair of mean eyes.
“I got rid of them,” I said to Mom when I got back inside. I leaned the bat up against the table. “Sent those vandals packing.”
“Vandals,” she repeated. “Yeah, vandals.”
“What’d they do to you? Smash up the mailbox? Break up the fence around the garden?”
Mom, though, she didn’t answer. Just cowered in on herself and wept a little bit.
More shame for me: I can’t bear my mother crying. And not in the way where I seek to comfort her. It’s that way with me and any woman. She cries, I have to go. Feel like a caged animal as soon as those tears start to fall.
So, I did just that. Got in my car in search of a drink.
As I said, more shame for me.
* * *
There, but for the grace of God, go I. Drunk. Driving. Dumb.
I wasn’t so drunk I don’t remember the drive, but drunk enough to think that I could speed over that bridge without a care in the world. Bits of rotten wood disappeared into the darkness beneath the onslaught of my tires. I also thought a turn was a straightaway, but somehow I took the curve even though my brain didn’t see ft to carry that information to my hands. Almost felt like the road carried me where it wanted to go. Heck. Maybe that’s what happened.
Back at the house, I sobered up real fast.
Mom was sitting in her chair still, jaw slack. Not dead, but weak. Wanted me to wet her lips with a washcloth, so I did.
I noticed some things. A few spots of blood on the collar of her robe. A couple more on the back cushion of the chair. I asked her what happened.
“Vandals,” she whispered. “It was them vandals.”
Somewhere, far off in the distance, I heard the pop of gravel under tires, and mad cackling over a roaring engine. I felt my heart cinch up. I took Mom into bed, and crashed out on the couch. Sleep didn’t come.
* * *
Next day, I went to Kenny’s house, see if he still lived there. He did. Not long after I knocked, he opened up the door a crack to see who it was. Etched into the frame, up and down the wood, were all kinds of weird symbols. Burned into the wood, by the looks of it. “I thought you might come back,” he said.
Kenny’s house was a museum left for the spiders and dust mites. Bunch of Route 66 paraphernalia hanging on the walls, some of it pretty rusted. Had a bunch of car parts — chrome hubcaps, some side and rear mirrors and weird hood ornaments from cars I’d never seen before. Maps, too, hanging everywhere, marked up in red pen. Strangest of all were the mason jars of different types of stone and gravel sitting on a few bookshelves.
I reached out and grabbed a fstful of his shirt. Pulled him close.
“Start talking. Tell me what’s going on around here.”
He told me. I wish he hadn’t.
But you already know the story. Highway dies. Town follows suit. All the creatures of decay settle in for a meal. All the scavengers, hungry for blood.
Except, Kenny — excuse me, Kenneth — told me that I was wrong about one thing.
“The highway isn’t dead,” he explained. “Make no mistake, it’s dying. Drying up like a snake baking in the sun. But there lurks a little life left in the road. And you can help me stir that life anew.”
Took a deep breath. Then I told him I’d help him. Of course, then I fgured he was just talking in metaphors. Turns out that wasn’t the case.
Found out more about the Road Gospel, and 18 other stories, in The God-Machine Chronicle Anthology, available in ebook and print from DriveThruFiction.