Despite its title, Road to Nowhere has a conclusive ending. And a powerful one, at that. Christopher Pike‘s 1993 novel puts its troubled protagonist behind the wheel and shadows her every move and thought as she drives along the California coast one fateful night. The path ahead of her is unclear, but one thing’s for sure — Teresa’s life will never be the same after she picks up two hitchhikers along the way.
In typical Pike fashion, Road to Nowhere starts off near the middle rather than at the beginning. And the inciting incident causing Teresa Chafey to suddenly take off is unclear until the last couple of chapters. All readers really know so far this 18-year-old is upset about something her (ex) boyfriend Bill did, and she thinks running off will make her feel better and him worse. Of course there is always more to the story than meets the eye. Teresa indeed says “Bill was one of the reasons she was running away,” but she also adds he was “not her only one, nor her biggest.”
A naïve driver giving a lift to strangers hardly ends well in fiction, but Teresa feels lost and lonely. Her admittedly weird traveling mates, ones with a rich and entangled history, are the distraction she sorely needs from her own problems. And Freedom “Free” Jack and Poppy Corn are as amusing as they are uniquely named. They don’t get along in the slightest, however their specific kind of bickering suggests they were a couple at some point.
To break the ice and keep things lively inside the car, the two travelers entertain Teresa with a long and winding anecdote about their friends, John Gerhart and Candice “Candy” Manville. It’s a story full of heartache and shock, and light and darkness. In exchange, Teresa reluctantly explains the cause of her unexpected journey. At least the one she believes to be true. All the while, Teresa’s left wrist mysteriously aches and her body grows feverish with every leg of the long trip.
It’s not hard to understand why Teresa would be so captivated by John and Candy. Free describes them with both deep knowledge and passion. These two entwined souls first met in high school; John was poor, abrasive and brainy, while Candy was rich, creative and prone to reverie. They eventually fell in love despite their differences, and up until a very bad day, they were destined to be together. Sadly, this unfortunate incident drove them apart for a number of years. From there Road to Nowhere shows its fangs as John’s tragic life is played out in excruciating detail, and Candy’s trek into adulthood is one hurdle after another.
John and Candy are each put through hell. From losing two fingers on the job to becoming addicted to painkillers and heroin, John is never given a fair shot at life. And Poppy later explains how Candy had an affair with a professor, got pregnant, and finally flunked out of college. Unlike John, though, Candy manages to turn things around; she works hard to become a nurse and take care of her son, makes up with her parents, and finds herself a stable guy. Which is why what happens next especially hurts. Pike reunites the high-school sweethearts at a mini-mart, only to then have them die in one another’s arms.
Free and Poppy’s epic story has a tendency to eclipse everything else going on in Road to Nowhere, including the main character. Yet as they all get closer to some kind of end point, it becomes clear the two strangers’ turbulent tale of the past has everything to do with Teresa’s future. In between her companions’ shared narration, Teresa intermittently divulges her own drama, starting with how Bill betrayed her not once but twice. Not only did Teresa’s former boyfriend go behind her back and audition her private music to a nightclub, Bill became interested in Teresa’s best friend, Rene. It’s not as if she was caught off guard by the emotional affair; she had an inkling since Bill and Rene first met. Yet the confirmation of their liaison sends Teresa spiraling; she caves to her immediate emotions and does things she truly regrets.
Teresa driving around in circles, never finding a turn-off or reaching a specific destination after what seems like an eternity is a big hint of what lies ahead. The only other signs of life over the course of this dark and stormy night are found in a creepy castle first and an all-night Catholic church second. Free escorts Teresa into the castle to meet his “mother,” a woman whose psychic abilities help Teresa understand why Bill drifted to Rene and why her loved ones keep her at a distance. And at the church where mass is held in Latin during the dead of night, Poppy urges Teresa to see her “father” and make confession.
There is a constant battle between opposing forces in Road to Nowhere. Be it good and bad, life and death, or most importantly, the past and future, Teresa is caught up in a mystical tug-of-war of her own making. At the castle, Teresa said she “didn’t want to go forward, not yet,” and she “wanted to understand better why her past had died the death it had.” The church scenes represent the future, or rather what awaits Teresa as long as she continues down this path. She pours her heart out to the priest, admitting to almost killing Bill and Rene in their sleep, shortly before her road trip. It is only when the priest asks if there’s more to the story, something forgotten or denied, does Teresa run away as well as deprive herself of a different future.
The trio’s last stop is at a mini-mart, not unlike the one where John and Candy perished in a standoff with the cops. The events of their deadly reunion play out here with variation; Free is now aiming the gun at the clerk, and Teresa is his accomplice. Only now does Teresa finally remember what all happened after leaving Bill’s house. The knife she planned to kill him and Rene with, she took back home and used on herself. Now lying in a bathtub, clinging to life because no one knows she’s dying, Teresa bleeds out from the same wrist that’s been aching all night.
Christopher Pike takes the road least traveled in his novel. The author could have easily served up a cat-and-mouse game between driver and hitchhiker, but he instead delivers a gripping tale of redemption with a sizable moral twist in the tail. And while his contemporaries generally steered clear of religion in their young-adult novels, the intrepid author tackled the subject, albeit in a roundabout way. The readers may end up finding themselves more drawn to the story-within-a-story; John and Candy’s narrative bits are tremendous and worthy enough of their own book. Nevertheless, their tragedy — really Free and Poppy’s, if readers haven’t figured that out yet — complements Teresa’s own journey. And in return, her personal growth gives her passengers their own chance to move on from the past.
There was a time when the young-adult section of bookstores was overflowing with horror and suspense. These books were easily identified by their flashy fonts and garish cover art. This notable subgenre of YA fiction thrived in the ’80s, peaked in the ’90s, and then finally came to an end in the early ’00s. YA horror of this kind is indeed a thing of the past, but the stories live on Buried in a Book. This recurring column reflects on the nostalgic novels still haunting readers decades later.