Last night the spring rains began just as I knew they would, soft and gentle at first, a pattering like piano keys, then thickening into something harsh and dark. At the first bark of thunder I opened a window, closed my eyes, and smelled the air. Sodden leaf rot. It’s a smell that would be almost pleasant if it wasn’t so overwhelming. The kind of smell most people associate with late autumn when the cold October sunshine slants through chimney smoke and bare branches, but this is spring, when folks around here think about gardening or spreading quilts on their lawns with little signs alerting the neighborhood that, at long last, the garbage from their attic is now FOR SALE. Not me. I breathed in that horrid stench, massaged my aching hands and thought about the road that stole my parents, and then my life.
I closed the window and finished packing the suitcase I opened thirty years earlier.
I don’t exaggerate – it had been open since 1982, the year I turned forty-three. That was the year I shocked my colleagues by resigning my professorship at Penn State, where I’d made a handsome reputation as a historian of transportation. Every museum director in North America and Europe concerned with railroads, highways or the airplanes knew my name. I didn’t tell the faculty why I was leaving. By then I was a husk of my former self, a pale specter with dark, pitted eyes and an ill-fitting tweed coat, and I’m sure even the people I considered friends felt a small measure of relief when I was gone. The faculty thought it was just unmanageable grief – my quitting. They thought I couldn’t cope with the shock that my parents had left our vacation home in Gilsum, New Hampshire on April 28, 1981 and had never been seen or heard from since. In a sense they were right, but it was more than grief. I had spoken to my folks that very morning and it never occurred to me to warn them about that lonely stretch of road that cuts west from Rt-12A in New Hampshire to the Vermont border, not until it was too late.
The memories raced through my mind as I finished packing my suitcase, reawakening the dull hum of arthritis in my hands. I grabbed a bottle of painkillers off the nightstand, tossed them in and sat on the bed, imagining what it had been like for my parents on that day thirty years ago. It would’ve been a day exactly like today. They would have sat up in bed and looked out the same window I was staring through now, rain smearing the view of the leaning birch and yew crowding the backyard. The creek just beyond would be swelling against its banks, the sky heavy and dark. It was the end of their spring vacation at the cottage and it was a “good day to git” – I remember my father telling me that on the phone. He called from the screened porch and told me they planned to get on the road at eleven. Mom was in the kitchen, wiping down counters and laying mousetraps in the cupboards. Pop told me about the weird smell of rotten leaves.
“It stinks so bad I can smell it on my shirt!” he said. I heard him inhaling cotton flannel while the rain poured down around him. “Something is wrong. It’s like nothing I’ve never smelled. If it weren’t pouring out I’d get out the ladder and check the gutters.” He paused to pop a cigarette in his mouth. I heard his thumb work against the wheel of his Bic. “Ah, what the hell. It’s a good day to git, I guess,” he said. I was sitting in my study, sorting through papers I needed to grade before Monday. Pop sighed. “We’re going to wait an extra hour or two to see if this weather lifts before we get on the road. Should get into Albany no later than four. We’ll call you.”
“Sounds good,” I said. “Are you guys still thinking of going cross country this summer?”
“Yes! We’ve got the whole trip planned. We decided this morning – we’ll leave June first. There’s no time to start living like today, right Willie?”
“I guess,” I laughed. “Love you too, Pop.”
“Love you too.”
We hung up and I went back to grading papers. I finished around two in the afternoon and started painting the hallway. I was repainting the entire interior of my house by myself, a project I would finish long after the newspaper headlines forgot about my parents. My fiancé, Elizabeth, was in Harrisburg, volunteering for the Democratic challenger in the mayor’s race. We talked on the phone at about seven o’clock – she’d made great progress and decided to stay another day – I told her to keep an eye on the weather and call me before she left, then I hung up and retreated to the front stoop to relax with a beer. That’s when I realized I hadn’t heard from my folks. I called the house. No answer. I called again at eight, nine, nine-thirty; I called their neighbors. No one had seen them. Tracing their route in my mind, I tried to think of a place where they might’ve broken down, a place where traffic was light and phones scarce.
Then it hit me.
It was a moment of blanket terror a mother might feel at the wheel after realizing she’d left her toddler sitting on the floor of the department store dress room. I checked the calendar, then I checked again. The date was spot on: thirty years and thirty days since the last person disappeared on Peaberry Lane. If my folks held true to their schedule and left at eleven – and my father was nothing if not prompt – they would’ve reached the road at one-thirty. Thirty hours after the rain began.
After finishing packing I realized I had nothing to do until morning. And where was I going, exactly? Hard to say. I spent a lifetime thinking about that unpaved swath of death and now that the time had come to go to it, the absurdity of it all crept back in.
“Do you really believe this?” I asked myself, listening to the rain rattle the windows around me. But I knew it was not a question of plausibility, nor of simple belief. I had felt the road speaking to me in a language I could never understand for the last thirty years, and tomorrow I would answer in the only way I could. I would become its thirtieth victim. Had any of the other victims known what would happen? Were any of them obsessed with the road, as I was? I asked myself again and again, but it was highly doubtful. My parents never thought of it as anything but a shortcut on their way from the cottage back home, and I’m certain the young boy who disappeared in the early 1950’s had no clue of his fate.
I was the only one, and tomorrow I would become the thirtieth person to turn off of Rt-12A near Surry onto the half frozen mud of Peaberry Lane and disappear under the shadow of its trees. Finally, I would know peace.
Needing a distraction, I went to the kitchen to fix myself a sandwich of cold turkey and cheese, though I wasn’t hungry. Someone rapped at the door.
“William!” a voice called from the screen door. “William, are you home? For God sakes let me in, or git on that roof and fix the damn rain gutter over your door!”
Gracie. I smiled and walked into the darkness of the hallway, motioning her in. “Well don’t just stand there getting my lawn sopping wet!” I called.
A burst of laughter trumpeted out of her as she scooted in – that’s just how she laughed, short and loud, like an exclamation mark leaping from her head. It was a unique laugh, and she did laugh often. I never tired of it.
“Speaking of rain gutters, what is that smell out there today? Yucks!” She was wearing a blue hooded raincoat that shielded all but a few curls of her silver hair. The screen door banged shut behind her and she drew a bottle from under her arm. “I gotta nice Bordeaux from Alsace Lorraine,” she said. “I don’t know whether to say Santé a la votre or Prost!”
“Why don’t we stick with Salud,” I said, leaning over her. She puckered her lips and pushed her cheek sideways at me, I planted a nice peck on it. Gracie was the closest thing I had to a neighbor. I met her at the Moose Lodge a few years ago. I sat at the bar every day, reading the paper and eating my eggs over easy, and there she’d be, right beside me, talking endlessly while I tried to concentrate on my crosswords. I don’t ever remember being introduced. She just showed up and started talking.
One day she was chattering away and I lost my patience and told her to sit somewhere else – anywhere else, please. She scooped up her purse and left the lodge without a word, and didn’t show up for a week. Of course I felt like an ass, but I also missed her. Gracie was a widow who’d lost her husband to prostate cancer and her only son to a roadside bomb near Baghdad. Most people our age who’d experienced loss like hers were as good as dead themselves. Not Gracie. I’ve never known anyone who could spit in the eye of hardship like she did. She strained against the reins every day, and you never saw the fight.
She didn’t make it easy on me – the apology, I mean – but eventually I got her to start taking walks with me in the evenings. I found that if I got her to unload all the words stored up in her head during a nice stroll it helped shut her up while I was trying to read the paper the next morning. It was a strategy I shared with her right away, and she blasted laughter in my face, offered me her arm, and we’ve been “seeing each other” ever since, I guess.
“Did you finally get the tires replaced on your Jeep?” I asked, but she wasn’t listening. She fiddled with the pearl brooch that lay across the dimple in her neck – a nervous habit that I loved – and studied my eyes.
“Something’s going on,” she said, her voice tinged with concern. “Tell me what’s happening, William.”
I was prepared for this, and proceeded to tell her some poppycock about my trip. I told her I have a nephew who was graduating from college this weekend at the Civic Center in Clifton Park.
“Why are you worried then?” she asked, seeing right through me.
“I’m not worried. Why would I be worried?”
She shrugged. “Why should I be worried? Can’t tell, but I am. There’s something you’re not telling me.
“You’re right,” I confessed. “My nephew. He’s getting a degree in political science. Says he wants to work in the governor’s office in Albany. I may be the only one who’ll show up to congratulate him.”
“You’re a funny guy.”
“That’s why you walked through the pouring rain to drink wine with me,” I smiled, hoping I was close to disarming this conversation.
She softened a little and rested her head against my chest. “You never mentioned a nephew,” she said.
“Sit with me,” I said. “It’s a lovely day. Let’s open that bottle and get moldy on the porch.”
She relented and sat on the porch swing, fiddling with her brooch while I got a couple juice glasses and a corkscrew from the kitchen. That was about the time the arthritis started to quake around my bones with a ferocity I’d never felt before.
My affair with Peaberry Lane started when I was in graduate school, thanks in part to my research but more to my weakness for unsolved mysteries. In my free time I liked to sit in the library, sip coffee, and comb through periodicals like Unsolved Crimes of America. One day, I came across a fascinating article about a twelve year old boy named Ricky Keller who disappeared one spring day in 1951 as he biked to a friend’s house near Surry, New Hampshire. The weather had been foul, and Ricky and a friend were hoping the rain would bring up some trout on the lake. They planned to meet at the parking area beside the lake at one-thirty on Saturday afternoon. Ricky lived on Poor Farm road, about three miles west of Route 12A. The rain started to let up around ten after one, just after the boy had finished his chores. He jumped on his two-speed Schwinn and peddled up Sage Bush Road, which linked with Peaberry Lane less than a mile up. It was the same route he’d taken to the lake since he was old enough to ride a bike and cast a line, but Ricky Keller never showed up that day. The police found no clues, and no suspects that stuck. The boy was never found.
Something tugged at my memory as I read the article. I tucked the magazine inside my windbreaker, snuck out of the library, and walked home to the two-bedroom flat I shared with Elizabeth, who I’d been seeing for the last two semesters. I went to a footlocker tucked away under a stack of milk crates that served as shelving for books and albums. There, buried under a heap of old papers and photographs, I found an antique book my Aunt Cecile once gave to me titled Ghost Roads of New England. Inside it was a chapter that changed my life forever.
The book detailed a series of strange disappearances in Cheshire County, New Hampshire, that started during the Civil War era. The first recorded incident was in 1861. A father and his only son drove a team of horses through the forested lands, hauling timber to a mill near the state line, when they vanished without a trace. It happened again in the spring of 1891, this time sweeping away an entire family on their way to church, and again in 1921 when a couple passed through on their way to Manchester to visit friends. The last two incidents happened in late April, just after a hard spring rain that the local residents said accompanied a “peculiar smell of rotting vegetation,” (the first disappearance had not been properly documented in the town records).
I checked the copyright date inside those yellow musty pages. The book was published in 1940 and went out of print shortly after. I’ve never found another copy anywhere since. The author died of a stroke in the mid-1960’s and, as far as I could determine, no one carried on his research. So I started my own study of Peaberry Lane. The road had been hastily carved through the forested lands of Cheshire County early in the nineteenth century to give loggers access to the Connecticut River. It was unpaved, as it remained to this day, a narrow, winding path through the woods that spanned less than four miles in length, and during one of my visits I discovered the most fascinating thing of all: Nothing grows under the trees.
Standing under those massive, twisting spires of gray and brown, I saw not a single sapling or shrub within forty yards of the road, and not so much as one broken branch on the ground. I contacted an arborist who came out to have a look and the man was amazed. He said the trees were thousands of years old and in perfect health. It’s as if they decided to live forever, crowding out all other life along the way.
When I discovered the recurring signs that preceded each incident – the smell of damp rot and thirty hours of rain, starting thirty years and thirty days after the last disappearance – I kept it to myself, intending to publish a book of my own on this fascinating phenomenon. I spent the summer of 1980 sifting through state archives and newspaper transcripts, gathering notes and writing late into the night. Elizabeth and I took a vacation to Key West in late November – her spirits needed lifting, as the election of Ronald Reagan spelled disaster for everything she held dear – and I took a knee while we sat under a thatch roofed inn, watching the flaming sunset spread across the water. Her finger trembled as I slid the ring on it and she swept me into her arms, crying tears of joy on my sunburned shoulder.
For the last time in my life, I was truly happy.
Then my parents left the cottage on April 28, 1981, expecting to be home in time for Family Feud. And everything changed.
It was almost ten o’clock when I got home, shutting the door softly behind me as if that would somehow cushion the impact of my lateness. I reached up to loosen my tie and found nothing there, forgetting I hadn’t worn one in months. The knees on my corduroy pants were caked with mud and dried leaves clung to my jacket. I looked, and felt, like an eleven year old boy who’d been out dirt biking with his friends and was now sneaking in hours after his curfew.
I kicked off my muddy shoes and placed my keys on the wobbly end table beside the door. Elizabeth and I joked that getting a new one would be our first anniversary present to ourselves. It was the saddest of jokes. Right now we were trying to stay engaged, and when I glanced at my watch and saw how late it was my heart sank a little more.
I crept down the hall. The house was soundless and dark, except for a single light in the kitchen. I hoped Elizabeth was sitting there waiting for me and at the same time I prayed that she wasn’t. I had devolved into a living contradiction, a fool whose mind was too restless and exhausted to make any decision of consequence. I moved into the doorway and found the kitchen empty.
A cardboard box lay on the kitchen table with a note beside it. I saw that it was a box of take out food and terror rippled up my skin. I remembered that we’d made plans to meet four hours earlier at Savory, a wonderful French restaurant on Garrand Avenue. I’d gotten so lost in my thoughts as I prowled around the road, gathering soil and bark samples, that I’d completely forgotten about our date. I picked up the note. It said: Chicken Cacciatore was always your favorite. Use the new microwave.
I looked at the microwave oven she insisted on buying, still wondering why anyone would want to cook their food with radiation. I shoved the box in the fridge instead and went down the hall to our bedroom. It was pitch dark and I could hear the faint sigh of Elizabeth sleeping. I undressed and slid under the blankets, trying not to wake her. Moments later I felt the softness of her hand on my chest. I kissed it and then her head rested on my shoulder.
“I love you, William…” she whispered. “But I’m leaving you.”
“Sweetheart…I-I’m so sorry about tonight, I just – ”
She placed a finger on my lips. “This isn’t about tonight, it’s about us. I’ve told you this before. I called Charity’s office yesterday to find out why we haven’t gotten a bill.”
I groaned inwardly. Charity was the therapist I’d started seeing a few months ago.
“She says you haven’t attended a session in three weeks. You lied to me, William. Why would I commit to someone who lies to me about wanting to get healthy again?”
“It’s not like that. Really. I have just a few more pieces to gather for my book and I’ll be done with this forever. I’ve told you this. ”
She sighed and shook her head against my shoulder, the chilly tip of her nose gracing my chest. “And that suitcase you refuse to put away…If you continue like this you’ll do it alone, and you will regret it for the rest of your life.”
Her words echoed in my head as I thought of the last thing my father said to me: There’s no time to start living like today, right Willie? My mind drifted to the cigarette butt I kept in a Sucrets tin in my sock drawer, the lone Pal Mal butt I found on Peaberry Lane the day after my folks disappeared. My father’s last cigarette, I’m quite sure.
She rolled over onto her side of the bed.
The next morning was Saturday. Elizabeth was still snoring lightly under the sheets as I yanked on a pair of jeans and a sweater, tip-toeing across the carpet. My mind skipped like a stone across water, searching for a gesture, any gesture that felt right. Something that would show her what she meant to me. I finally decided on running to the corner market to pick up a couple red roses for her, maybe stop at Geno’s Bakery and pick up some hot croissants on my way back. Surprise her with breakfast in bed! I put on my shoes, came down the creaky staircase and slipped out onto the quiet city street. I lifted my face to the warm sunshine. For the first time in weeks I felt grounded, sure of myself and what I wanted. I wanted her. I wanted my mind back. I wanted to work and live and play and have children I could take to the park on mornings like this.
Everything seemed simple as I left the corner mart with two red roses in my hand. I hurried back up the block, when I remembered ordering photocopies of some articles earlier last week. I glanced at my watch – Elizabeth would likely sleep until at least eight o’clock – that gave me plenty of time to pop into the library and see if my copies were ready. Five minutes later I was sitting in a green upholstered chair in the room adjacent to the check-out desk, flipping through pages, making sure they were all there.
It was past six o’clock that evening when I finally came home, wilted roses sagging from my hand. I felt like I’d been struck by lightning, wrung out yet quaking with nervous energy, every synapse blown out and smoking with intensity, but I also felt worthless because I’d failed her again. I trudged down the hall, my mind groping for anything that would save me, that would save us, but when I got to the bedroom and saw her empty closet I knew I was too late. Only after pacing around the living room for an hour did I notice the mail was gone from the detestable end table by the front door. Instead, there was a note lying on it.
It said, Happy trails.
I sat behind the wheel of my sedan, watching the gray dawn light the driveway to Gracie’s cabin. I had dreamt of Elizabeth last night, how I was too sick to hold onto her, and now here I was again, staring through the rain at the cedar logs of Gracie’s home, knowing that my darling girl was fast asleep behind them. What in the hell was I doing, I wondered. Driving to my own death instead of spending the few unwasted years I had left with a woman who adored me? I looked at the rain drumming on the hood of her emerald green Jeep. Even at this distance I could see that she had not replaced the nearly bald tire on the driver’s right. She needed me, and I needed her.
I imagined getting out of my car and going to her, crawling into her bed, feeling the arthritis trickle out of my bones and blow away with all my obsessive worrying. Then I drove away, turning left by the stop sign that’d been tilted left since a snowplow nailed it three years ago and rolling down the hill towards Gilsum.
I cut through the sodden green Connecticut River valley, past sprawling pastures and tottering fences held together by rusted wire. Huge wings of water lifted on either side of me as I pushed through the pooling rain. I was nearly weeping with agony, resting one wrist on the lower steering wheel, the other curled in my lap like a stiff, dead animal. I passed the Drummer Hill Conservation and turned right onto Route 12-A. Surry Mountain Lake lay ahead like a shadow on my streaked windshield. At last I passed the lone Sunoco on the left – which advertised take-out pizza and night crawlers on the same sign. Just beyond that, a sun-weathered chunk of wood stood on a pole by the roadside. Burned into the wood were the words: Peaberry Lane.
I turned left and entered the dark enclosure of road.
The sense of foreboding deserted me the instant I made the turn. I could almost see myself on an afternoon drive to Brattleboro for a browse at the antique bookstore and a latte at the Village Cup. It would’ve been easy to imagine were it not for the oppressive stench of leaf rot. I rolled up my window, trying to close it off, succeeding only in stoking the fire in my hands.
My suitcase lay in the passenger seat beside me, and in it were the painkillers. I pulled into a parking lane that angled off into the woods, killed the engine and dug out the pills. The doctor prescribed two every six hours. I took four with some bottled water and leaned the seat back. Rain popped against the roof, small curious fingertips drumming overhead head, slowing down to a pleasant rhythm. I drifted. Gliding on a cushioned sleigh, over the top of the tree line. I could see the narrow river of packed mud that made up the road. I could see my car angled off into the bushes. I could see…
My eyes flipped open with a scream lodged in my throat. I’d been dreaming and something I saw had been so vivid and terrifying it nearly cut through the dense fogginess in my head. The rain had stopped, and I was just about to put the car in reverse when I saw a Jeep splash past me, just slow enough for me to recognize it.
“NO!” I shouted, turning the ignition and throwing the car in reverse. “No, No, NO!”
My back end whipped out onto the road and I stomped on the gas. My tires spun uselessly in the mud and finally caught hold. The road took a hard curve to the left just ahead and I barely got around it without fishtailing into the trees. Beyond it was a straightaway that lasted maybe an eighth of a mile before going hard right. I blasted my horn and flicked my lights, trying to get Gracie’s attention. She’d known something was wrong last night and, because she was loyal, because she was sweet and thoughtful, because she was my friend, she’d come after me.
She was closing in on the turn ahead and I laid on the horn hard. Her brake lights came on and for a moment I thought she’d seen me. Then she went around the bend.
I came around the corner and looked at a stretch of empty road that went on as far as I could see. Gracie was gone. Even if her Jeep could jump from forty miles an hour to one-ten I would still see her taillights ahead. There was nothing.
I pulled over and got out of my car. “No...” I moaned. “Not you. Not you. Please…”
Fresh tire tracks ran through the mud – her tracks – and about fifty yards in they stopped completely. No skids. No disturbance of any kind. The tracks were there, and then they weren’t. The smell was gone too. Nothing in the air but earthy growth and spring rain.
I found her brooch lying in the mud, looking like it had always been there. I picked it up and went to my knees, wailing like a child. I fell forward and let my face touch the cool, cool mud and high above me the sun broke through the clouds, reaching down to warm my neck. The new season had arrived.