It’s that time of week again, when we pick up a classic (and make no mistake friends, they’re all classics) book from nineteen-dickety-two, and relive the glory years of afterschool snacks, scholastic book club order forms, and yes, even ditto paper. Today’s entry is Christopher Pike’s “Road to Nowhere”, and if you’re thinking it’s the one about a bunch of teens and a deserted town, with weird short stories, you’d be wrong. That’s “Whisper of Death”, also by Pike, but let’s be honest—the titles are pretty similar, and I mix them up myself quite a bit.
No, “Road to Nowhere” opens up, where else, but on a dark and stormy night…in Los Angeles. Which, yeah, sure, I guess sometimes it rains here. Anyway, our heroine, 18-year-old Teresa Chafey, is in a bit of a jam, and needs to get out of town, fast. So, she does whatever any teen running away from home in the middle of the night does, she picks up two hitchhikers to pass the time. I mean, standard teen stuff, right?
Well, if you’re thinking these hitchhikers are run of the mill serial killers, you’re in a R.L. Stine book and not a Christopher Pike book. Don’t worry, mistakes happen. No, these hitchhikers are the mysteriously named Poppy Corn and Freedom Jack—and guess what? They’re going up to the Bay area just like Teresa is. What’s a coincidence, right?
Well, Teresa is in a bad way, and wants the company, and because the drive up north from LA to the Bay takes a while, they decide to tell each other stories. Teresa is asked to explain why she’s running away, and in return, Freedom and Poppy will tell her a story about a couple they once knew. (Note: I will not bore you with rattling on the various routes you can take up to the Bay area, and the approximate time each takes, because nobody but Angelinos find that remotely interesting, but just know she opted to take the long way.)
(…she took the PCH. I’m sorry, I can’t help myself.)
Anyway, Teresa and the weird hitchhikers takes turns telling each other the respective stories, and all the while Teresa drives on and on, with the road getting more and more deserted.
So, what’s Teresa’s story you ask? Well, it’s pretty standard. Teresa met a dude named Bill. It was love at first mall food court, and they began to go steady. Bill encouraged Teresa’s dream of becoming a songwriter, going so far as to secretly record her, and then send the tape to a club owner, because we all know secrecy and lies are the foundation upon which healthy relationships are born. Teresa is hired, and is a smashing success, but twist, Bill falls in love with Teresa’s best friend, and they break up.
What’s Poppy and Freedom’s story you ask? It’s a lot weirder and more interesting to be honest. It’s about a couple, John and Candy. They meet in high school. John is a goof ball, and Candy is a talented artist, but her parents are forcing her to go to med school. Candy’s great at art, not so great at academics. So, John helps Candy cheat on her tests, and her grades are great, only one day they get caught. John takes the fall and makes it exponentially worse by attacking the teaching who caught him, which makes him end up in juvie. Candy is fine and dandy, because she has to be a foil for John’s bitterness, duh. Anyway, John gets out of juvie, but Candy has done gone off to college. Only, she’s basically flunking out because John’s not there to help her cheat, so she gets pregnant by her married art teacher. This story is far from over, friends.
Candy moves up north to have her baby, and John gets work in a bread factory because it’s the only place that will hire him. He mouths off to his supervisor (who is taking credit for John’s good ideas and mechanical solutions) so his supervisor gets back at him by messing with the bread factory machinery which gets a few of John’s fingers ripped off. If you think John is taking all this in stride, you would be sorely mistaken friend. No, John could house a family of five in the chip on his shoulder. He runs out of painkillers and medical intervention for the constant pain he feels due to his bad hand, and thus becomes addicted to opioids and turns to a life of crime to support this habit.
Cut to Candy, she’s back in California, raising her child (which she considers John to be the spiritual father of, because why not?) and in a new relationship. In fact, she’s in the same city as John (LA) and a nurse in a hospital John is getting treatment in. John sees Candy (with her family) but Candy doesn’t appear to see him.
Cut to later that night, John is robbing a convenience store to get money to get a fix, and it’s going badly. Candy walks in at the same store, and John takes her hostage to get out, because the clerk has called the cops, and they’re hot on his tail. Only John is too late, and he ends up getting shot by the cops and Candy is killed, also.
Well, if you think you know where this story is headed, I can all but guarantee you that you haven’t factored in losing one’s virginity in a witch’s castle, somewhere on the California coast.
Oh yes friends—while these stories are being alternately told, we get to check in on Teresa, Freedom, and Poppy while they’re in the car. Teresa is into Freedom and finds Poppy to be a drag. They occasionally stop to get gas and grab beer, and each time they do, Freedom Jack changes his clothes out of his traveling bag. It’s heavily implied that perhaps Freedom Jack isn’t paying for any of the beer and gas he’s buying, but we’ll get to that in a second. Did I mention that when Teresa is driving, she’s starting to feel physically ill—her stomach hurts and her left wrist feels like it’s on fire. Hmmm, curiouser and curiouser.
The unlikely trio also make some non-gas/beer stops along the way.
The first is to Freedom Jack’s weird witch friend’s castle (Poppy Corn stays in the car.) She reads Teresa’s fortune (naturally) and Teresa doesn’t like what she hears, but it’s ok, because Freedom Jack takes her to a room, and they do it. See, Teresa was planning on losing her virginity that very night to Bill before he broke up with her, so…I dunno. She does it with Freedom Jack, because why not? Hey—unless you’ve ever been in a witch’s castle off the coast of California you don’t know how’d you react to your hitchhiker wanting to get down with it, so I think it’s all perfectly logical, ok?
If you were worried Poppy Corn was upset, don’t worry, because she wasn’t. She does however insist that Teresa stop at her father’s place, which isn’t a trippy castle, but instead a church that seemingly appears out of nowhere. Teresa goes in (Freedom Jack stays behind) with Poppy, and Teresa is directed to the small confessional room. When she’s at the church, she suddenly feels cured of her physical ailments, although that feeling of well-being goes away when the priest hears her confession but keeps insisting that Teresa isn’t telling him the absolute truth. Teresa gets out of there (with Poppy in tow) and they get back onto the road. Finally, it’s time for their last pit stop—and here’s where it all goes down.
Freedom Jack has Teresa go in with him to the gas station, and it’s finally confirmed that, yes, they’re going to rob the station just like John did. Freedom hands Teresa a weapon, and then shoots the clerk dead, as well as a nurse that comes in during the robbery. They then flee the crime scene and soon reach Freedom Jack and Poppy’s final destination.
Yes, friends, it should be pretty obvious to you now that some weird s*it is going down. Turns out, Teresa is in some kind of purgatory—she never got on the road that night, instead she went home to kill herself after Bill and she broke up. She’s not dead yet but she almost is. Poppy Corn and Freedom Jack are actually John and Candy—and they’re here to give her a choice (also, that bag Freedom Jack was using to change costumes from. It’s a body bag. Nice touch, Pike!)
The choice is this: If Teresa goes with Freedom Jack, her life is over and she goes on to whatever is next (it doesn’t seem like a good option, but that’s just my opinion) or do it Poppy Corn’s way, and return to this mortal coil fight for her life.
Now, if you think it’s straightforward teen melodrama, you’d be wrong, because Freedom Jack and Poppy are also in a purgatory of their own. See, they do this whole schtick a lot—find a lost soul in this trippy in-between state, and basically mind-f*ck them into choosing a side because everything is kind of terrible in this world. Anyway, Freedom Jack has been carrying around a lot of after-life angst and guilt because he was convinced that he was the one who shot Candy in his last moments alive. Only twist—it turns out it was a cop that shot Candy in a bout of friendly fire. So, John gets to be absolved of his guilt in one fell swoop.
Reader, this is a game changer for John and Candy—long story short, Teresa choses life and John choses to stop being a colossal d*ck, so Teresa is sent back to the earthly realm and John and Candy’s souls finally move on.
If you think this is done, well, there’s one more twist coming your way. Remember how Candy had a son? Guess who Teresa meets in the hospital once she wakes up?
Friends, that all happened in only the first twenty pages of the book…
Ha, just kidding. That’s the whole shebang, and it was a lot.
I’m ninety percent certain I read this as a child, but I don’t remember a damn thing about it other than the cover, which to be fair, is a helluva cover. The tagline at the top is: “Death came along for the ride…” Good times.
I will say that rereading Pike as an adult illustrates how oddly religious a lot of his stuff is—having the priest try to save Teresa was an interesting flourish and you can’t ignore that the priest’s foil was a flipping fortune-telling witch. There’s a lot to unpack there, but I’m going to leave the secular lady alone for now. I mean, I guess nuance and subtly aren’t the name of the game about two ghosts trying to get a teenager to choose life. It’s just an interesting contrast to the solidly secular writings of R.L. Stine—I’m pretty sure his characters never worried about the state of their souls or finding salvation in a church. They were too busy avoiding that rock band that also happened to be werwolves. (That book was called “Bad Moonlight” and it was a Fear Street Super Chiller.)
All in all, while I think this book cover is one of his most memorable, this story is kind of forgettable (but it’s also bonkers, so I appreciated it for what it is.) I mean, let’s be honest, nothing really compared to “Remember Me”, except for “Gimmie a Kiss”, which I am saving for a very special post, because it’s my favorite Pike of all time.
Anyway, join me next week for Caroline B. Cooney’s “Face on the Milk Carton”, which was a book I was wasn’t allowed to read as a kid, so obliviously I snuck it out form the school library. Thank god for libraries.
Header Image Source: Pocket Books