Sunlight reflected off Three Mile Island’s nuclear cooling towers as my plane landed. After three weeks of traversing California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, I was home for seven days. The first thing I did (after getting my Jeep out of long-term parking) was drive to my ex-wife’s house. She and my son had been babysitting my cat while I was away. I hugged all three of them and then sat down on their couch and accidentally fell asleep for fourteen hours.
When I woke up, I reminded myself that I was only home for seven days. Then I’d be back out on the road again.
I tried to settle back into my regular routine, but that was easier said than done. One problem was the time travel aspect of touring. After bouncing back and forth between so many different time zones, my body no longer new what time it was, or even what day.
Another difficulty was the balancing act of spending time with my sons and still getting work done. I suck at working on the road. The West Coast leg of the tour was no exception. I wrote a little bit in hotel rooms—a page here or there. I jotted some things down in a Moleskin notebook while riding shotgun in Tod Clark’s truck. I tried recording some thoughts in the digital voice recorder Kevin J. Anderson had suggested I buy, but couldn’t figure out how to use it. Now, I was home, and had access to my office and all of its familiarity and comfort—but I still found working impossible. It was clear to both me and my ex-wife that while our eight-year-old had done okay with me being gone so long, my absence had impacted him just the same, so spending quality time with him was my first concern. Less so my older son, who, at twenty-five, is used to Dad’s touring.
For the next seven days, my eight-year-old and I swam in the creek and went on hikes and played Legos and video games and watched movies and read comic books and had a glorious time. Work—which I was already behind on—took a back seat. I knew I would pay for this later on, as deadlines loomed and publishers got justifiably pissed off at me, and fans wondered where the next book was, but I didn’t care. Some things are more important. Writing was basically limited to evenings after my son had gone to bed. I attempted to check my email, but there were 4,987 unread messages in my inbox, and I found the prospect of answering them daunting, so I opted to just ignore them and hope they all went away.
The next Saturday, it was time for another signing. I didn’t have to get on a plane or drive eight hours because the event was local—taking place at The York Emporium, one of the biggest used bookstores on the East Coast. The building used to be an old factory. Now, every corner is filled with bookshelves and display cases. Genre fans can find anything there—mint condition Arkham House and Gnome Press titles, limited editions from Cemetery Dance and Subterranean Press, Zebra and Leisure paperbacks, and even old fanzines from a bygone era.
It’s also the partial resting place of J.F. Gonzalez (hereafter referred to as Jesus). After his death, some of his ashes were spread in California. Some of them reside with his wife and daughter. And some of them were interred within the walls of The York Emporium, along with an unopened bottle of bourbon and a sealed letter explaining who he was so that five hundred years from now, when workmen tear down the building to make room for a new spaceport, they’ll know who is buried there and what he meant to us.
The York Emporium used to be a regular hang out for us both. Indeed, it was sort of a social gathering point for all of Central Pennsylvania’s speculative fiction writers. For years, Jesus, myself, Geoff Cooper, and Robert Ford had individual hiding places within the store—spots where we could stash books we really wanted but couldn’t afford that week, so that the others couldn’t buy them first. Jesus’s ashes are interred in his hiding spot.
I hadn’t been inside the store much since we’d sealed him in the wall. Part of that was time spent writing and being a father and a boyfriend. Part of it was the fact that I hadn’t been home much, due to touring. And part of it was because the few times I had visited, I’d sat down in front of Jesus’s spot, hoping to feel something—some connection, some sign—and found only silence and a deep, abiding sadness within myself. I took this to mean that wherever he was, it wasn’t here. I mentioned in an earlier column that my idea of the afterlife is a hotel convention bar, and Dick Laymon, Rick Hautala, Phil Nutman, Graham Joyce, Charlie Grant, Tom Piccirilli, Jesus, and everybody else are hanging out there, waiting for the rest of us to arrive. If that was indeed where Jesus had gone, then it was pointless for me to sit there in a bookstore and talk to a wall. Even with the better awareness the public has for mental illness these days, people still look at you funny if you talk to walls—unless you’re wearing a Bluetooth. So, I didn’t visit much, mostly because doing so made me sad.
I wasn’t thinking about any of this the morning of the signing. Indeed, as Mary SanGiovanni and I drove to the store, I was thinking about just how triumphant the first leg of the tour had been—how most signings had been well-attended, how both Pressure and The Complex were selling through the roof, how I had successfully re-booted my mass-market, mainstream career, and how, for the first time in a long time, I was genuinely happy. How, for the first time in recent memory, it didn’t feel like doom was dogging my footsteps, following in my wake like some dark, ominous and ever-expanding storm cloud.
That was in the first week of July. Writing this now, in mid-September, I remember how that storm cloud exploded in the weeks that followed, spitting down rain and hail and hellfire. Other writers call that foreshadowing. I just call it life.
The signing itself went great. In addition to Mary and myself, Chet Williamson, Stephen Kozeniewski, Robert Ford, Kelli Owen, Lesley Conner, Jason Pokopec, Rachel Autumn Deering, and a few other authors were in attendance. We signed books and did panel discussions. I met new readers and reconnected with long-time fans. I saw a lot of friends I’d known from high school. The only downside to the day was the heat. The York Emporium has no HVAC system, and by one in the afternoon, the temperature inside the store had reached the high nineties.
At the end of the day, before all of us went out to dinner together, I decided to visit Jesus. I walked over to his section and stood in front of the wall, and silently reflected on things. For just a brief moment, I thought I felt something—an impression of a warning. Now, it’s common knowledge that I’m paranoid. I admit it and accept it. But Jesus was paranoid, too. We both had good reason to be. Twenty years in this business will make anyone paranoid. But when Jesus had his haunches up, when his Spidey-sense was tingling and he thought something bad was coming our way—the collapse of Dorchester or the fall of Borders, for example—he used to give off this very particular vibe.
For perhaps twenty seconds, standing there in front of his resting place, I felt that vibe. I felt it as surely as I feel these laptop keys beneath my fingertips as I type this. And then…it was gone. I chalked it up to the heat. I chalked it up to my imagination. Then I left the store and went to dinner with my friends, and then spent a final evening with Mary doing boyfriend and girlfriend stuff that we hadn’t had a chance to do for a month because I’d been gone.
Two days later, I hugged my loved ones goodbye, climbed into the Jeep, and headed back out onto the road for the second leg of the tour. The Jeep’s cargo compartment had a dozen boxes of Joe R. Lansdale books (which I was transporting to a convention for him), my duffel bag, my laptop bag, and my emergency kit. I headed south down Interstate 81, passing from Pennsylvania into Maryland and then Virginia. I listened to music and the Ground Zero with Clyde Lewis podcast.
But mostly, I thought about that feeling I’d had inside the bookstore…and what it might mean.
Brian Keene writes novels, comic books, short fiction, and occasional journalism for money. He is the author of over forty books, including the recently released Pressure and The Complex. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.