What was the worst thing you’ve ever done?
In the sleepy town of Milburn, New York, four old men gather to tell each other stories—some true, some made-up, all of them frightening. A simple pastime to divert themselves from their quiet lives.
But one story is coming back to haunt them and their small town. A tale of something they did long ago. A wicked mistake. A horrifying accident. And they are about to learn that no one can bury the past forever...
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|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
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About the Author
In all, Straub’s books and stories were nominated for a dozen World Fantasy Awards, winning four, and 14 Bram Stoker Awards, with ten wins, among many other award nominations. He was named a World Horror Grandmaster in 1997, was given the Horror Writers Association's Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005, was named an International Horror Guild Living Legend in 2008, and received the World Fantasy Convention's Life Achievement Award in 2010. Straub was on the Locus Science Fiction Foundation board of directors for several decades. He passed away in 2022.
Hometown:New York City
Date of Birth:March 2, 1943
Place of Birth:Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Education:B.A. in English, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1965; M.A., Columbia University, 1966
Read an Excerpt
- 1 -
What was the worst thing you've ever done?
I won't tell you that, but I'll tell you the worst thing that ever happened to me . . . the most dreadful thing . . .
- 2 -
Because he thought that he would have problems taking the child over the border into Canada, he drove south, skirting the cities whenever they came and taking the anonymous freeways which were like a separate country, as travel was itself like a separate country. The sameness both comforted and stimulated him, so that on the first day he was able to drive for twenty hours straight through. They ate at McDonald's and at root-beer stands: when he was hungry, he left the freeway and took a state highway parallel to it, knowing that a drive-in was never more than ten or twenty miles away. Then he woke up the child and they both gnawed at their hamburgers or chili dogs, the child never speaking more than to tell him what she wanted. Most of the time she slept. That first night, the man remembered the light bulbs illuminating his license plates, and though this would later prove to be unnecessary swung off the freeway onto a dark country road long enough to unscrew the light bulbs and toss them into a field. Then he took handfuls of mud from beside the road and smeared them over the plates. Wiping his hands on his trousers, he went back around to the driver's side and opened the door. The child was sleeping with her back straight against the seat, her mouth closed. She appeared to be perfectly composed. He still did not know what he was going to have to do to her.
In West Virginia, he came awake with a jerk and realized that for some seconds he had been driving in his sleep. "We're going to pull up and take a nap." He left the freeway outside of Clarksburg and drove on a state road until he saw against the sky a red revolving sign with the words PIONEER VILLAGE on it in white. He was keeping his eyes open only by will power. His mind did not feel right: it seemed that tears were hanging just behind his eyes and that very soon he would involuntarily begin to weep. Once in the parking lot of the shopping center, he drove to the row farthest from the entrance and backed the car up against a wire fence. Behind him was a square brick factory which manufactured plastic animal replicas for display-for Golden Chicken trucks. The factory's asphalt yard was half-filled with giant plastic chickens and cows. In their midst stood a giant blue ox. The chickens were unfinished, larger than the cows and dully white.
Before him lay this nearly empty section of the lot, then a thick cluster of cars in rows, and then the series of low sandstone-colored buildings which was the shopping center.
"Can we look at the big chickens?" the girl asked.
He shook his head. "We're not getting out of the car, we're just going to sleep." He locked the doors and rolled up the windows. Under the child's steady unexpectant gaze he bent over, felt under the seat and drew out a length of rope. "Hold your hands out," he said.
Almost smiling, she held out her small hands, balled into fists. He pulled them together and wound the rope twice about her wrists, knotted it, and then tied her ankles together. When he saw how much rope was left, he held out the surplus with one arm and roughly pulled the child to him with the other. Then he wound the rope about them both, looping them together, and made the final knot after he had stretched out across the front seat.
She was lying on top of him, her hands bunched in the middle of his stomach and her head on his chest. She breathed easily and regularly, as if she had expected no more than what he had done. The clock on the dashboard said that it was five-thirty, and the air was just beginning to turn cooler. He hitched his legs forward and leaned his head back against the headrest. To the noises of traffic, he fell asleep.
And awakened it seemed immediately, his face filmed with sweat, the faintly acrid, greasy odor of the child's hair in his nostrils. It was dark now; he must actually have slept for hours. They had gone undiscovered-imagine being found in a shopping center parking lot in Clarksburg, West Virginia, with a little girl tied to your sleeping body! He groaned, shifted himself to one side and woke the girl. Like him, she came immediately into wakefulness. She bent back her head and regarded him. There was no fear, only intensity in her gaze. He hurriedly untied the knots, dragged the rope from around them; his neck complained when he sat upright. "You want to go to the bathroom?" he asked.
She nodded. "Where?"
"Beside the car."
"Right here? In the parking lot?"
"You heard me."
He thought again that she nearly smiled. He looked at the girl's intense small face, framed in black hair. "You'll let me?"
"I'm going to be holding on to your hand."
"But you won't look?" For the first time, she showed concern.
He shook his head.
She moved her hand to the lock on her door, but he shook his head again and took her wrist and held it tightly. "Out on my side," he said and pulled up his own lock and got out, still clutching the girl's bony wrist. She began to edge sideways toward the door, a girl of seven or eight with short black hair, wearing a little dress of some thin pink material. On her otherwise bare feet were faded blue canvas sneakers, fraying at the tops of the heels. Childishly, she put one bare leg down first and then wiggled around to swing the other out of the car.
He pulled her around to the factory fence. The girl bent her head back and looked up. "You promised. You won't watch."
"I won't watch," he said.
And for a moment he did not watch, but let his head roll back as she stooped, forcing him to lean sideways. His eyes drifted over the grotesque plastic animals behind the fence. Then he heard some fabric-cotton-moving over skin, and looked down. Her left arm was extended so that she was as far from him as she could get. The cheap pink dress was pulled up over her waist. She too was looking at the plastic animals. When the girl was finished, he took his eyes from her, knowing that she would glance at him. She stood up and waited for him to tell her what to do next. He pulled her back toward the car.
"What do you do for a living?" she asked.
He laughed out loud with surprise: this cocktail-party question! "Nothing."
"Where are we going? Are you taking me someplace?"
He opened the door and stood aside as she climbed back into the car. "Someplace," he said. "Sure, I'm taking you someplace." He got in beside her, and she moved across the seat to the door.
"We'll see when we get there."
Again he drove all night, and again the girl slept most of the time, coming awake to stare out the windshield (she always slept sitting up, like a doll in her tennis shoes and pink dress) and to ask him odd questions. ÒAre you a policeman?Ó she asked him once, and then after seeing an exit sign, ÒWhatÕs Columbia?Ó
"It's a city."
"Like New York?"
"Are we always going to sleep in the car?"
"Can I play the radio?"
He said yes, and she leaned forward and twisted the knob. The car was invaded by static, two or three voices speaking at the same time. She punched another button and the same crowded hiss erupted from the speaker. "Twist the dial," he said. Frowning, her face concentrated, she began slowly to turn the selector. In a moment she had locked onto a clear signal, Dolly Parton. "I love this," she told him.
So for hours they drove south through the songs and rhythms of country music, the stations weakening and changing, the disk jockeys swapping names and accents, the sponsors succeeding each other in a revolving list of insurance companies, toothpaste, soap, Dr Pepper and Pepsi-Cola, acne preparations, funeral parlors, petroleum jelly, bargain wristwatches, aluminum siding, dandruff shampoos: but the music remained the same, a vast and self-conscious story, a sort of seamless repetitious epic in which women married truckers and no-good gamblers but stood by them until they got a divorce and the men sat in bars plotting seductions and how to get back home, and they came together hot as two-dollar pistols and parted in disgust and worried about the babies. Sometimes the car wouldn't start, sometimes the TV was busted; sometimes the bars closed down and threw you out onto the street, your pockets turned inside out. There was nothing that was not banal, there was no phrase that was not a clichŽ, but the child sat there satisfied and passive, dozing off to Willie Nelson and waking up to Loretta Lynn, and the man just drove, distracted by this endless soap opera of America's bottom dogs.
Once he asked her, "Have you ever heard of a man named Edward Wanderley?"
She did not reply but regarded him levelly.
"He was my uncle," he said, and the girl smiled at him.
"How about a man named Sears James?"
She shook her head, still smiling.
"A man named Ricky Hawthorne?"
Again she shook her head. There was no point in continuing. He did not know why he had bothered to ask in the first place. It was even possible that she had never heard those names. Of course she had never heard them.
Still in South Carolina, he thought that a highway patrolman was following him: the police car was twenty yards behind, keeping the same distance whatever the man did. He thought he could see the state cop speaking into his radio; immediately he cut his speed by five miles an hour and changed lanes, but the police car would not pass. He felt a deep trembling in his chest and abdomen: he visualized the police car gaining on him, turning on its siren, forcing him to the side of the road. Then the questions would begin. It was about six in the afternoon, and the freeway was crowded: he felt himself being drawn helplessly along with the traffic, at the mercy of whoever was in the police car-helpless, trapped. He had to think. He was simply being drawn on toward Charleston, pulled by the traffic through miles of flat scrubby country: suburbs were always visible in the distance, miserable collections of little houses with frame garages. He could not remember the number of the freeway he was on. In the rear-view mirror, behind the long row of cars, behind the police car, an old truck sent out a tall column of black smoke through a chimneylike pipe beside the engine. He feared the patrolman cruising up beside him and shouting: ÒGet over!Ó And he could imagine the girl shouting, her high tinny voice shouting, ÒHe made me come with him, he ties me onto him when he sleeps!Ó The southern sun seemed to assault his face, to grind at his pores. The state patrolman swung out into the next lane and began to draw up toward him.
-Asshole, that's not your girl, who is that girl?
Then they would put him in a cell and begin to beat him, working on him methodically with nightsticks, turning his skin purple . . .
But none of that happened.
- 3 -
Shortly after eight o'clock he pulled over to the side of the road. It was a narrow country road, loose red dirt piled on the shoulders, as if it had been only recently dug out of the earth. He was no longer sure of what state he was in, South Carolina or Georgia: it was as though these states were fluid, as if they-and all the rest of them-could leak over into one another, pushing forward like the highways. It all looked wrong. He was in the wrong place: no one could live here, no one could think here, in this brutal landscape. Unfamiliar vines, green and ropelike, struggled up the low bank beside his car. The fuel gauge had been on E for the past half hour. All of it was wrong, all of it. He looked at the girl, this girl he had kidnapped. She was sleeping in that doll-like way, her back straight against the seat and her feet in the ripped sneakers dangling above the floor. She slept too much. Suppose she was sick; suppose she was dying.
She woke as he was watching her. "I have to go to the bathroom again," she said.
"Are you okay? You're not sick, are you?"
"I have to go to the bathroom."
"Okay," he grunted and moved to open his door.
"Let me go by myself. I won't run away. I won't do anything. I promise."
He looked at her serious face, her black eyes set in olive skin.
"Where could I go, anyhow? I don't even know where I am."
"I don't either."
It had to happen sometime: he couldn't hold on to her at every moment. "You promise?" he asked, knowing the question was foolish.
She nodded. He said, "All right."
"And you promise you won't drive away?"
She opened the door and left the car. It was all he could do not to watch her, but it was a test, not to watch her. A Test. He wished overwhelmingly that he had her hand trapped in his fist. She could be scrambling up the bank, running off, screaming . . . but no, she was not screaming. It often happened that the terrible things he imagined, the worst things, did not occur; the world gave a hitch and things went back to the way they had always been. When the girl climbed back into the car he was flooded with relief-it had happened again, no black hole had opened up for him.