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Stairway to Heaven: Radical Doubt, Chapter 1

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The first of ten excerpts from Radical Doubt, a novel by Avery Chenoweth, copyright 2013. All rights reserved. Available on Amazon.

They drove on in the early summer downpour, following the state road north into the forest. The two lanes were nearly invisible and Charlie was tempted to pull over again. He swiped his hand furiously over the windshield but only managed to blur the glass. They had been listening to their favorite FM rock station from Philadelphia, and though they had held onto it for two hours, the signal was finally gone and the static was giving them an eerie feeling of disconnecting. All that was familiar and comfortable was behind them now and they were alone in their confinement. Charlie cracked the vent, but the mist would not dissipate from inside the windshield. Water boomed under the fenders, splashing up to the windows. Sean popped his vent, too, and receipts whirled up in a panic over the backseat. With a fast food napkin, Charlie wiped the glass as he drove, until he finally cleared a hole and the tunnel of trees appeared in front of him again. His eyes cut to the rearview mirror—it was just half a mile back: a red speck. “There they are,” he yelled out over the wind and wet road noise.

Sean twisted around in the passenger seat. “Sweet,” he said. “Slow down.” He swatted Charlie’s fumbling hand away from the dials and turned on the defroster. “Come on, slow down. Slow down.” Sean got a beer can from the paper bag between his sneakers, ready for the promised handoff.

Water crashed into the undercarriage, lifting the car off the road. Charlie let off the gas. The tires grabbed, and they shot forward, still doing fifty in the veils of rain.

The red speck had its headlights on, and had been gaining on them quickly over the last quarter mile. Rays of sun cut through the haze; the rain was letting up. The red sports car came up on their bumper and flicked its lights. Charlie gallantly steered into the oncoming lane; it was clear for as far as he could see down the straightaway ahead of him. The red sports car fired up into their open slot. The cute blonde driver was laughing and waved, and her girlfriend sent a flurry of waves over the roof. Charlie held the wheel but waved over the roof too, while Sean got his cool face on and flashed them a sly grin. Charlie’s face was beaming with the first nonironic smile of his life. Not even half an hour earlier they had met them in a gas station, where they had pulled over to get out of the storm. The blondes had told them about an almost mythical resort hotel, the grandest one of them all, where college students became rich waiting tables. The girls were going there to teach tennis, they said, and suggested they check it out, too; it would be fun to start the summer together.

Now, the blonde steered in closer. Her girlfriend climbed into the space behind the front seat, held on, and extended herself a little out the window. Only the yellow line separated their cars. She extended her arm. Sean dangled the beer can out the window. They swerved apart a 1 little and then in again, and Charlie could not believe he was doing something so stupid. He punched the radio off to kill the static and concentrate. Wind roared in and spots of sunshine appeared over the road.

They began to steady at thirty-five. They took swipes, missed, and tried again. Sean grabbed the open vent and lunged further out the window; the blonde snatched the beer. She fell into the sports car and woo-wooed, distracting them from the road. Sean settled back in. Charlie tightened his grip; the old Ford yacht was sloshing on its springs.

A curve flew up in the road at the end of the straightaway. Cars were coming round in a slow procession, a white van in front. Sean grabbed another beer from the bag and got onto one knee preparing to lean out again.

The white van hit its lights, closing the hundred yards between them.

Charlie tightened both hands on the wheel. “Cars! Cars, cars, douche bag, get in! Shit! Fucking move over—tell her to move the fuck over.” Charlie wanted to brake but had nowhere to go. There wasn’t room to accelerate or fall behind. She was driving so slowly that she was boxing him out. The only way to miss a head-on collision was to cut across oncoming traffic into the distant trees.

Sean was all the way out, resting on his hipbone, one arm hooked around the column between the open front and back windows. He was so far over the roaring asphalt that he neatly tossed it into their car. The girl clapped her hands at it but missed. “Watch the water,” he yelled.

The van was blasting its horn and flashing its high beams.

They hit the huge pond of water and it splashed up in a fan between the cars. The girls floored it and Charlie, braking hard, swung in behind them. He punched the gas, with a swerve on the edge, spitting loose gravel. The girls were screaming—and it took a second to realize it was hysterical laughter. The van blew by, blaring its horn, and the driver shouting. Charlie was not laughing and did not relax his crushing grip on the wheel. His expression was almost blank. The girls were dry and safe and waved above their heads as their car burst ahead down the road. Charlie looked at Sean, who sat with both hands open before him, and looking as drowned as if he had been thrown in the pool at some graduation party. His hair hung down his face, doused with road filth, and his tee shirt stuck to his skin, revealing his small but ambitious little gut. His wide smile beamed under his bangs. Sean popped in an 8-track tape of Santana; their music would save them.

“Holy shit, that was awesome, you know what I mean?” Sean said. “I cannot wait to hook up with them.”

“Wow,” Charlie elaborated. “Talk about intense. I’m still having a heart attack. My heart attack is having a heart attack—Jesus Christ. I thought you were going to fall out of the car, man.”

“`And in Connecticut,`” Sean quoted. “`There’s hamburger aaalllll over the highway.`”

Charlie laughed. “`Oh Porgy, oh my, oh my, oh my!’”

“You want to give me those?” Sean snatched a few damp napkins to dry off. “Great.”

Charlie exhaled and Sean ripped open their beers, toasting the girls as they pulled ahead, and again became a red speck.

The girls must have been doing almost ninety because not even the old V-8 bomb could keep up with them. The Delaware Water Gap appeared over the trees. And with symbolic eloquence for these two guys who lived through reading, the colossus rose above the forest, turning toward them. The granite shoulders shone in the broken patterns of sun. The red speck 2 flew across the bright chasm between Jersey and everything west, and then disappeared under the arc of a rainbow.

“Talk about symbolism.” Sean laughed, sardonically. Charlie began to sing, “Somewhere… under the rainbow…”

Sean put his arm out the window, filling his tee shirt with wind. “So, now what?”

“Follow directions, I guess.” Charlie gave a nod at the perfectly timed road sign that pointed towards Black Bear Falls.

“That would be a first…” Sean tilted his hand in the wind and let it fly.

They drove on into the wet sunshine of a fresh morning in June. For a while they laughed over the stunt with the girls and then the buffeting windows and Latin rock allowed them some privacy, and their conversations fell away, a space of silence with a history. They listened to the music narrating their lives and serving as an emotional umbilical line with their adolescence and its discontents. Then Charlie pushed the gas and the Galaxie began thrashing the road. They were zooming to their favorite soundtrack of high school, pitched so loud that both of their fathers would have stormed into the basement and yelled at them to turn it the hell down, go out and get a job, Goddamn it. And knowing this then made them both laugh without explaining.

Because they had, that was the funny part. As if to foil their parents, they had found work. On a tip from a friend in their prep school, they were driving today into the Poconos as the perfect place to set things into motion for their year off from college. As waiters at any one of the resorts, they would make a few hundred a week. They just didn’t know which resort they should work in.

“What was the name of that joint again?” Sean called out to Charlie.

“Black Bear Falls Inn, is what she said. I say we go there.”

Sean laughed across at Charlie, “Are you kidding me? It’s a no-brainer.” Charlie smiled back, and their hair flew across their eyes for a moment. The excitement in the driveway was two hours in the rear view mirror, and everyone they knew was back there at home along with the unexamined lives they were leaving—the uncut lawns, unpainted shutters, and uncleaned garages of that whole Pleasant Valley Sunday thing, which was killing them. Soon, they would make hundreds a week and would get to Mexico in July. And at the last gas station, to make it that much sweeter, they had met the two blondes in the red Corvette, and their plans solidified further with just a slight change.

Sean jacked a greatest-hits eight track into the deck and the car filled with the sun-bright guitars and shotgun piano of the Allman Brothers. In real time now, they would catch I-80 near the mountains, cross Pennsylvania, head down across the mythic badlands of the American West and south to some peyote plateau with a dusty old shaman, where they would find the undiscovered truths behind the visible, an adventure no less surprising to them than it was to others. Sean Braden and Charlie Bell, both nineteen years old, and going on seventeen, had been a pair of underachievers since they had met five years ago, in prep school, when they both won the honor of study hall detention, as freshmen. Now, after a year of music, pot, and philosophy in their different colleges, they were putting that deadening conformity in the rearview mirror of this dented Ford, back with all the expectations and resentments of their stunted youth. They drove slowly into the village of Black Bear Falls, where they did not see the red sports car.

They went out of the village in a matter of one intersection with an Esso Station, a pizza joint, and a roadhouse saloon made of dark logs. A mile or so outside the town, they went through a neighborhood of stonewalls and deer parks, and in some smooth procession, the 3 summerhouses rolled along in the deep shade. The beautiful landscapes formed outdoor rooms. Two stone columns stood at the entrance of a long, shaded drive. The brass plaque bore the name, Black Bear Falls Inn, and beyond that they saw the wet shimmer of woodlands without end. They turned in, turned off “Low Rider,” and listened to the crackle of tires on branches, acorns, and other bits of storm trash that littered the spots of sunshine, damply gleaming shadows, and little wisps of steam.

Next entry: Scooby Doo gets scared of his shadow.

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