Where would we be if love ended with death? At midnight on Halloween in a cloistered New England suburb, a car carrying five teenagers leaves a winding road and slams into a tree, killing three of them. One escapes unharmed, another suffers severe brain damage. A year later, summoned by the memories of those closest to them, the three who died come back on a last chilling mission among the living. A strange and unsettling ghost story in the tradition of Ray Bradbury and Shirley Jackson, The Night County creeps through the leaf-strewn streets and quiet cul-de-sacs of one bedroom community, reaching into the desperately connected yet isolated lives of three people changed forever by the accident: Tim, who survived yet lost everything; Brooks, the cop whose guilty secret has destroyed his life; and Kyle's mom, trying to love the new son the doctors returned to her. As the day wanes and darkness falls, one of them puts a terrible plan into effect, and they find themselves caught in a collision of need and desire, watched over by the knowing ghosts. Macabre and moving, The Night Country elevates every small town's bad high school crash into myth, finding the deeper human truth beneath a shared and very American tragedy. As in his highly prized Snow Angels and A Prayer for the Dying, Stewart O'Nan once again gives us an intimate look at people tyrig to hold on to hope, and the consequences when they fail.
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Stewart O'Nan has been named by Granta as one of its Twenty Best Young American Novelists. He lives in Connecticut.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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.
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 st...
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