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Skeleton Crew

Stories

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About The Book

The #1 New York Times bestseller and winner of the 1986 Locus Award for Best Collection, Skeleton Crew is “Stephen King at his best” (The Denver Post)—a terrifying, mesmerizing collection of stories from the outer limits of one of the greatest imaginations of our time.

“Wildly imaginative, delightfully diabolical…King once again proves to be the consummate storyteller” (The Associated Press).

A supermarket becomes the place where humanity makes its last stand against destruction. A trip to the attic becomes a journey to hell. A woman driving a Jaguar finds a scary shortcut to paradise. An idyllic lake harbors a bottomless evil. And a desert island is the scene of the most terrifying struggle for survival ever waged. This “wonderfully gruesome” collection (The New York Times Book Review) includes:

-“The Mist”
-“Here There Be Tygers”
-“The Monkey”
-“Cain Rose Up”
-“Mrs. Todd’s Shortcut”
-“The Jaunt”
-“The Wedding Gig”
-“Paranoid: A Chant”
-“The Raft”- “Word Processor of the Gods”
-“The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands”
-“Beachworld”
-“The Reaper’s Image”
-“Nona”
-“For Owen”
-“Survivor Type”
-“Uncle Otto’s Truck”
-“Morning Deliveries (Milkman No. 1)”
-“Big Wheels: a Tale of the Laundry Game (Milkman No. 2)”
-“Gramma”
-“The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet”
-“The Reach”

King is best known for his iconic, immersive long novels, but he is also a master of the short story, and this is a magnificent collection.

Excerpt

VII. The First Night.
Mr. McVey had worked in Bridgton cutting meat ever since I was twelve or thirteen, and I had no idea what his first name was or his age might be. He had set up a gas grill under one of the small exhaust fans—the fans were still now, but presumably they still gave some ventilation—and by 6:30 P.M. the smell of cooking chicken filled the market. Bud Brown didn’t object. It might have been shock, but more likely he had recognized the fact that his fresh meat and poultry wasn’t getting any fresher. The chicken smelled good, but not many people wanted to eat. Mr. McVey, small and spare and neat in his whites, cooked the chicken nevertheless and laid the pieces two by two on paper plates and lined them up cafeteria-style on top of the meat counter.
Mrs. Turman brought Billy and me each a plate, garnished with helpings of deli potato salad. I ate as best I could, but Billy would not even pick at his.
“You got to eat, big guy,” I said.
“I’m not hungry,” he said, putting the plate aside.
“You can’t get big and strong if you don’t—”
Mrs. Turman, sitting slightly behind Billy, shook her head at me.
“Okay,” I said. “Go get a peach and eat it, at least. ’Kay?”
“What if Mr. Brown says something?”
“If he says something, you come back and tell me.”
“Okay, Dad.”
He walked away slowly. He seemed to have shrunk somehow. It hurt my heart to see him walk that way. Mr. McVey went on cooking chicken, apparently not minding that only a few people were eating it, happy in the act of cooking. As I think I have said, there are all ways of handling a thing like this. You wouldn’t think it would be so, but it is. The mind is a monkey.
Mrs. Turman and I sat halfway up the patent-medicines aisle. People were sitting in little groups all over the store. No one except Mrs. Carmody was sitting alone; even Myron and his buddy Jim were together—they were both passed out by the beer cooler.
Six new men were watching the loopholes. One of them was Ollie, gnawing a leg of chicken and drinking a beer. The mop-handle torches leaned beside each of the watchposts, a can of charcoal lighter fluid next to each… but I don’t think anyone really believed in the torches the way they had before. Not after that low and terribly vital grunting sound, not after the chewed and blood-soaked clothesline. If whatever was out there decided it wanted us, it was going to have us. It, or they.
“How bad will it be tonight?” Mrs. Turman asked. Her voice was calm, but her eyes were sick and scared.
“Hattie, I just don’t know.”
“You let me keep Billy as much as you can. I’m… Davey, I think I’m in mortal terror.” She uttered a dry laugh. “Yes, I believe that’s what it is. But if I have Billy, I’ll be all right. I’ll be all right for him.”
Her eyes were glistening. I leaned over and patted her shoulder.
“I’m so worried about Alan,” she said. “He’s dead, Davey. In my heart, I’m sure he’s dead.”
“No, Hattie. You don’t know any such thing.”
“But I feel it’s true. Don’t you feel anything about Stephanie? Don’t you at least have a… a feeling?”
“No,” I said, lying through my teeth.
A strangled sound came from her throat and she clapped a hand to her mouth. Her glasses reflected back the dim, murky light.
“Billy’s coming back,” I murmured.
He was eating a peach. Hattie Turman patted the floor beside her and said that when he was done she would show him how to make a little man out of the peach pit and some thread. Billy smiled at her wanly, and Mrs. Turman smiled back.
At 8:00 P.M. six new men went on at the loopholes and Ollie came over to where I was sitting. “Where’s Billy?”
“With Mrs. Turman, up back,” I said. “They’re doing crafts. They’ve run through peach-pit men and shopping-bag masks and apple dolls and now Mr. McVey is showing him how to make pipe-cleaner men.”
Ollie took a long drink of beer and said, “Things are moving around out there.”
I looked at him sharply. He looked back levelly.
“I’m not drunk,” he said. “I’ve been trying but haven’t been able to make it. I wish I could, David.”
“What do you mean, things are moving around out there?”
“I can’t say for sure. I asked Walter, and he said he had the same feeling, that parts of the mist would go darker for a minute—sometimes just a little smudge, sometimes a big dark place, like a bruise. Then it would fade back to gray. And the stuff is swirling around. Even Arnie Simms said he felt like something was going on out there, and Arnie’s almost as blind as a bat.”
“What about the others?”
“They’re all out-of-staters, strangers to me,” Ollie said. “I didn’t ask any of them.”
“How sure are you that you weren’t just seeing things?”
“Sure,” he said. He nodded toward Mrs. Carmody, who was sitting by herself at the end of the aisle. None of it had hurt her appetite any; there was a graveyard of chicken bones on her plate. She was drinking either blood or V-8 juice. “I think she was right about one thing,” Ollie said. “We’ll find out. When it gets dark, we’ll find out.”
 
But we didn’t have to wait until dark. When it came, Billy saw very little of it, because Mrs. Turman kept him up back. Ollie was still sitting with me when one of the men up front gave out a shriek and staggered back from his post, pinwheeling his arms. It was approaching eight-thirty; outside the pearl-white mist had darkened to the dull slaty color of a November twilight.
Something had landed on the glass outside one of the loopholes.
“Oh my Jesus!” the man who had been watching there screamed. “Let me out! Let me out of this!”
He tore around in a rambling circle, his eyes starting from his face, a thin lick of saliva at one corner of his mouth glimmering in the deepening shadows. Then he took off straight up the far aisle past the frozen-food cases.
There were answering cries. Some people ran toward the front to see what had happened. Many others retreated toward the back, not caring and not wanting to see whatever was crawling on the glass out there.
I started down toward the loophole, Ollie by my side. His hand was in the pocket that held Mrs. Dumfries’ gun. Now one of the other watchers let out a cry—not so much of fear as disgust.
Ollie and I slipped through one of the checkout lanes. Now I could see what had frightened the guy from his post. I couldn’t tell what it was, but I could see it. It looked like one of the minor creatures in a Bosch painting—one of his hellacious murals. There was something almost horribly comic about it, too, because it also looked a little like one of those strange creations of vinyl and plastic you can buy for $1.89 to spring on your friends… in fact, exactly the sort of thing Norton had accused me of planting in the storage area.
It was maybe two feet long, segmented, the pinkish color of burned flesh that has healed over. Bulbous eyes peered in two different directions at once from the ends of short, limber stalks. It clung to the window on fat sucker-pads. From the opposite end there protruded something that was either a sexual organ or a stinger. And from its back there sprouted oversized, membranous wings, like the wings of a housefly. They were moving very slowly as Ollie and I approached the glass.
At the loophole to the left of us, where the man had made the disgusted cawing sound, three of the things were crawling on the glass. They moved sluggishly across it, leaving sticky snail trails behind them. Their eyes—if that is what they were—joggled on the end of the finger-thick stalks. The biggest was maybe four feet long. At times they crawled right over each other.
“Look at those goddam things,” Tom Smalley said in a sickened voice. He was standing at the loophole on our right. I didn’t reply. The bugs were all over the loopholes now, which meant they were probably crawling all over the building… like maggots on a piece of meat. It wasn’t a pleasant image, and I could feel what chicken I had managed to eat now wanting to come up.
Someone was sobbing. Mrs. Carmody was screaming about abominations from within the earth. Someone told her gruffly that she’d shut up if she knew what was good for her. Same old shit.
Ollie took Mrs. Dumfries’ gun from his pocket and I grabbed his arm. “Don’t be crazy.”
He shook free. “I know what I’m doing,” he said.
He tapped the barrel of the gun on the window, his face set in a nearly masklike expression of distaste. The speed of the creatures’ wings increased until they were only a blur—if you hadn’t known, you might have believed they weren’t winged creatures at all. Then they simply flew away.
Some of the others saw what Ollie had done and got the idea. They used the mop handles to tap on the windows. The things flew away, but came right back. Apparently they had no more brains than your average housefly, either. The near-panic dissolved in a babble of conversation. I heard someone asking someone else what he thought those things would do if they landed on you. That was a question I had no interest in seeing answered.
The tapping on the windows began to die away. Ollie turned toward me and started to say something, but before he could do more than open his mouth, something came out of the fog and snatched one of the crawling things off the glass. I think I screamed. I’m not sure.
It was a flying thing. Beyond that I could not have said for sure. The fog appeared to darken in exactly the way Ollie had described, only the dark smutch didn’t fade away; it solidified into something with flapping, leathery wings, an albino-white body, and reddish eyes. It thudded into the glass hard enough to make it shiver. Its beak opened. It scooped the pink thing in and was gone. The whole incident took no more than five seconds. I had a bare final impression of the pink thing wiggling and flapping as it went down the hatch, the way a small fish will wiggle and flap in the beak of a seagull.
Now there was another thud, and yet another. People began screaming again, and there was a stampede toward the back of the store. Then there was a more piercing scream, one of pain, and Ollie said, “Oh my God, that old lady fell down and they just ran over her.”
He ran back through the checkout aisle. I turned to follow, and then I saw something that stopped me dead where I was standing.
High up and to my right, one of the lawn-food bags was sliding slowly backward. Tom Smalley was right under it, staring out into the mist through his loophole.
Another of the pink bugs landed on the thick plate glass of the loophole where Ollie and I had been standing. One of the flying things swooped down and grabbed it. The old woman who had been trampled went on screaming in a shrill, cracked voice.
That bag. That sliding bag.
“Smalley!” I shouted. “Look out! Heads up!”
In the general confusion, he never heard me. The bag teetered, then fell. It struck him squarely on the head. He went down hard, catching his jaw on the shelf that ran below the show window.
One of the albino flying things was squirming its way through the jagged hole in the glass. I could hear the soft scraping sound that it made, now that some of the screaming had stopped. Its red eyes glittered in its triangular head, which was slightly cocked to one side. A heavy, hooked beak opened and closed rapaciously. It looked a bit like the paintings of pterodactyls you may have seen in the dinosaur books, more like something out of a lunatic’s nightmare.
I grabbed one of the torches and slam-dunked it into a can of charcoal lighter fluid, tipping it over and spilling a pool of the stuff across the floor.
The flying creature paused on top of the lawn-food bags, glaring around, shifting slowly and malignantly from one taloned foot to the other. It was a stupid creature, I am quite sure of that. Twice it tried to spread its wings, which struck the walls and then folded themselves over its hunched back like the wings of a griffin. The third time it tried, it lost its balance and fell clumsily from its perch, still trying to spread its wings. It landed on Tom Smalley’s back. One flex of its claws and Tom’s shirt ripped wide open. Blood began to flow.
I was there, less than three feet away. My torch was dripping lighter fluid. I was emotionally pumped up to kill it if I could… and then realized I had no matches to light it with. I had used the last one lighting a cigar for Mr. McVey an hour ago.
The place was in pandemonium now. People had seen the thing roosting on Smalley’s back, something no one in the world had seen before. It darted its head forward at a questing angle, and tore a chunk of meat from the back of Smalley’s neck.
I was getting ready to use the torch as a bludgeon when the cloth wrapped head of it suddenly blazed alight. Dan Miller was there, holding a Zippo lighter with a Marine emblem on it. His face was as harsh as a rock with horror and fury.
“Kill it,” he said hoarsely. “Kill it if you can.” Standing beside him was Ollie. He had Mrs. Dumfries’ .38 in his hand, but he had no clear shot.
The thing spread its wings and flapped them once—apparently not to fly away but to secure a better hold on its prey—and then its leathery-white, membranous wings enfolded poor Smalley’s entire upper body. Then the sounds came—mortal tearing sounds that I cannot bear to describe in any detail.
All of this happened in bare seconds. Then I thrust my torch at the thing. There was the sensation of striking something with no more real substance than a box kite. The next moment the entire creature was blazing. It made a screeching sound and its wings spread; its head jerked and its reddish eyes rolled with what I most sincerely hope was great agony. It took off with a sound like linen bedsheets flapping on a clothesline in a stiff spring breeze. It uttered that rusty shrieking sound again.
Heads turned up to follow its flaming, dying course. I think that nothing in the entire business stands in my memory so strongly as that bird-thing blazing a zigzagging course above the aisles of the Federal Supermarket, dropping charred and smoking bits of itself here and there. It finally crashed into the spaghetti sauces, splattering Ragú and Prince and Prima Salsa everywhere like gouts of blood. It was little more than ash and bone. The smell of its burning was high and sickening. And underlying it like a counterpoint was the thin and acrid stench of the mist, eddying in through the broken place in the glass.
For a moment there was utter silence. We were united in the black wonder of that brightly flaming deathflight. Then someone howled. Others screamed. And from somewhere in the back I could hear my son crying.
A hand grabbed me. It was Bud Brown. His eyes were bulging from their sockets. His lips were drawn back from his false teeth in a snarl. “One of those other things,” he said, and pointed.
One of the bugs had come in through the hole and it now perched on a lawn-food bag, housefly wings buzzing—you could hear them; it sounded like a cheap department-store electric fan—eyes bulging from their stalks. Its pink and noxiously plump body was aspirating rapidly.
I moved toward it. My torch was guttering but not yet out. But Mrs. Reppler, the third-grade teacher, beat me to it. She was maybe fifty-five, maybe sixty, rope-thin. Her body had a tough, dried-out look that always makes me think of beef jerky.
She had a can of Raid in each hand like some crazy gunslinger in an existential comedy. She uttered a snarl of anger that would have done credit to a caveman splitting the skull of an enemy. Holding the pressure cans out at the full length of each arm, she pressed the buttons. A thick spray of insect-killer coated the thing. It went into throes of agony, twisting and turning crazily and at last falling from the bags, bouncing off the body of Tom Smalley—who was dead beyond any doubt or question—and finally landing on the floor. Its wings buzzed madly, but they weren’t taking it anywhere; they were too heavily coated with Raid. A few moments later the wings slowed, then stopped. It was dead.
You could hear people crying now. And moaning. The old lady who had been trampled was moaning. And you could hear laughter. The laughter of the damned. Mrs. Reppler stood over her kill, her thin chest rising and falling rapidly.
Hatlen and Miller had found one of those dollies that the stockboys use to trundle cases of things around the store, and together they heaved it atop the lawn-food bags, blocking off the wedge-shaped hole in the glass. As a temporary measure, it was a good one.
Amanda Dumfries came forward like a sleepwalker. In one hand she held a plastic floor bucket. In the other she held a whisk broom, still done up in its see-through wrapping. She bent, her eyes still wide and blank, and swept the dead pink thing—bug, slug, whatever it was—into the bucket. You could hear the crackle of the wrapping on the whisk broom as it brushed the floor. She walked over to the OUT door. There were none of the bugs on it. She opened it a little way and threw the bucket out. It landed on its side and rolled back and forth in ever-decreasing arcs. One of the pink things buzzed out of the night, landed on the floor pail, and began to crawl over it.
Amanda burst into tears. I walked over and put an arm around her shoulders.
 
At one-thirty the following morning I was sitting with my back against the white enamel side of the meat counter in a semidoze. Billy’s head was in my lap. He was solidly asleep. Not far away Amanda Dumfries was sleeping with her head pillowed on someone’s jacket.
Not long after the flaming death of the bird-thing, Ollie and I had gone back out to the storage area and had gathered up half a dozen of the pads such as the one I’d covered Billy with earlier. Several people were sleeping on these. We had also brought back several heavy crates of oranges and pears, and four of us working together had been able to swing them to the tops of the lawn-food bags in front of the hole in the glass. The bird-creatures would have a tough time shifting one of those crates; they weighed about ninety pounds each.
But the birds and the buglike things the birds ate weren’t the only things out there. There was the tentacled thing that had taken Norm. There was the frayed clothesline to think about. There was the unseen thing that had uttered that low, guttural roar to think about. We had heard sounds like it since—sometimes quite distant—but how far was “distant” through the damping effect of the mist? And sometimes they were close enough to shake the building and make it seem as if the ventricles of your heart had suddenly been loaded up with ice water.
Billy started in my lap and moaned. I brushed his hair and he moaned more loudly. Then he seemed to find sleep’s less dangerous waters again. My own doze was broken and I was staring wide awake again. Since dark, I had only managed to sleep about ninety minutes, and that had been dream-haunted. In one of the dream fragments it had been the night before again. Billy and Steffy were standing in front of the picture window, looking out at the black and slate-gray waters, out at the silver spinning waterspout that heralded the storm. I tried to get to them, knowing that a strong enough wind could break the window and throw deadly glass darts all the way across the living room. But no matter how I ran, I seemed to get no closer to them. And then a bird rose out of the waterspout, a gigantic scarlet oiseau de mort whose prehistoric wingspan darkened the entire lake from west to east. Its beak opened, revealing a maw the size of the Holland Tunnel. And as the bird came to gobble up my wife and son, a low, sinister voice began to whisper over and over again: The Arrowhead Project… the Arrowhead Project… the Arrowhead Project…
Not that Billy and I were the only ones sleeping poorly. Others screamed in their sleep, and some went on screaming after they woke up. The beer was disappearing from the cooler at a great rate. Buddy Eagleton had restocked it once from out back with no comment. Mike Hatlen told me the Sominex was gone. Not depleted but totally wiped out. He guessed that some people might have taken six or eight bottles.
“There’s some Nytol left,” he said. “You want a bottle, David?” I shook my head and thanked him.
And in the last aisle down by Register 5, we had our winos. There were about seven of them, all out-of-staters except for Lou Tattinger, who ran the Pine Tree Car Wash. Lou didn’t need any excuse to sniff the cork, as the saying was. The wino brigade was pretty well anesthetized.
Oh yes—there were also six or seven people who had gone crazy.
Crazy isn’t the best word; perhaps I just can’t think of the proper one. But there were these people who had lapsed into a complete stupor without benefit of beer, wine, or pills. They stared at you with blank and shiny doorknob eyes. The hard cement of reality had come apart in some unimaginable earthquake, and these poor devils had fallen through. In time, some of them might come back. If there was time.
The rest of us had made our own mental compromises, and in some cases I suppose they were fairly odd. Mrs. Reppler, for instance, was convinced the whole thing was a dream—or so she said. And she spoke with some conviction.
I looked over at Amanda. I was developing an uncomfortably strong feeling for her—uncomfortable but not exactly unpleasant. Her eyes were an incredible, brilliant green… for a while I had kept an eye on her to see if she was going to take out a pair of contact lenses, but apparently the color was true. I wanted to make love to her. My wife was at home, maybe alive, more probably dead, alone either way, and I loved her; I wanted to get Billy and me back to her more than anything, but I also wanted to screw this lady named Amanda Dumfries. I tried to tell myself it was just the situation we were in, and maybe it was, but that didn’t change the wanting.
I dozed in and out, then jerked awake more fully around three. Amanda had shifted into a sort of fetal position, her knees pulled up toward her chest, hands clasped between her thighs. She seemed to be sleeping deeply. Her sweatshirt had pulled up slightly on one side, showing clean white skin. I looked at it and began to get an extremely useless and uncomfortable erection.
I tried to divert my mind to a new track and got thinking about how I had wanted to paint Brent Norton yesterday. No, nothing as important as a painting, but… just sit him on a log with my beer in his hand and sketch his sweaty, tired face and the two wings of his carefully processed hair sticking up untidily in the back. It could have been a good picture. It took me twenty years of living with my father to accept the idea that being good could be good enough.
You know what talent is? The curse of expectation. As a kid you have to deal with that, beat it somehow. If you can write, you think God put you on earth to blow Shakespeare away. Of if you can paint, maybe you think—I did—that God put you on earth to blow your father away.
It turned out I wasn’t as good as he was. I kept trying to be for longer than I should have, maybe. I had a show in New York and it did poorly—the art critics beat me over the head with my father. A year later I was supporting myself and Steff with the commercial stuff. She was pregnant and I sat down and talked to myself about it. The result of that conversation was a belief that serious art was always going to be a hobby for me, no more.
I did Golden Girl Shampoo ads—the one where the Girl is standing astride her bike, the one where she’s playing Frisbee on the beach, the one where she’s standing on the balcony of her apartment with a drink in her hand. I’ve done short-story illustrations for most of the big slicks, but I broke into that field doing fast illustrations for the stories in the sleazier men’s magazines. I’ve done some movie posters. The money comes in. We keep our heads nicely above water.
I had one final show in Bridgton, just last summer. I showed nine canvases that I had painted in five years, and I sold six of them. The one I absolutely would not sell showed the Federal market, by some queer coincidence. The perspective was from the far end of the parking lot. In my picture, the parking lot was empty except for a line of Campbell’s Beans and Franks cans, each one larger than the last as they marched toward the viewer’s eye. The last one appeared to be about eight feet tall. The picture was titled Beans and False Perspective. A man from California who was a top exec in some company that makes tennis balls and rackets and who knows what other sports equipment seemed to want that picture very badly, and would not take no for an answer in spite of the NFS card tucked into the bottom left-hand corner of the spare wooden frame. He began at six hundred dollars and worked his way up to four thousand. He said he wanted it for his study. I would not let him have it, and he went away sorely puzzled. Even so, he didn’t quite give up; he left his card in case I changed my mind.
I could have used the money—that was the year we put the addition on the house and bought the four-wheel-drive—but I just couldn’t sell it. I couldn’t sell it because I felt it was the best painting I had ever done and I wanted it to look at after someone would ask me, with totally unconscious cruelty, when I was going to do something serious.
Then I happened to show it to Ollie Weeks one day last fall. He asked me if he could photograph it and run it as an ad one week, and that was the end of my own false perspective. Ollie had recognized my painting for what it was, and by doing so, he forced me to recognize it, too. A perfectly good piece of slick commercial art. No more. And, thank God, no less.
I let him do it, and then I called the exec at his home in San Luis Obispo and told him he could have the painting for twenty-five hundred if he still wanted it. He did, and I shipped it UPS to the coast. And since then that voice of disappointed expectation—that cheated child’s voice that can never be satisfied with such a mild superlative as good—has fallen pretty much silent. And except for a few rumbles—like the sounds of those unseen creatures somewhere out in the foggy night—it has been pretty much silent ever since. Maybe you can tell me—why should the silencing of that childish, demanding voice seem so much like dying?
 
Around four o’clock Billy woke up—partially, at least—and looked around with bleary, uncomprehending eyes. “Are we still here?”
“Yeah, honey,” I said. “We are.”
He started to cry with a weak helplessness that was horrible. Amanda woke up and looked at us.
“Hey, kid,” she said, and pulled him gently to her. “Everything is going to look a little better come morning.”
“No,” Billy said. “No it won’t. It won’t. It won’t.”
“Shh,” she said. Her eyes met mine over his head. “Shh, it’s past your bedtime.”
“I want my mother!”
“Yeah, you do,” Amanda said. “Of course you do.”
Billy squirmed around in her lap until he could look at me. Which he did for some time. And then slept again.
“Thanks,” I said. “He needed you.”
“He doesn’t even know me.”
“That doesn’t change it.”
“So what do you think?” she asked. Her green eyes held mine steadily. “What do you really think?”
“Ask me in the morning.”
“I’m asking you now.”
I opened my mouth to answer and then Ollie Weeks materialized out of the gloom like something from a horror tale. He had a flashlight with one of the ladies’ blouses over the lens, and he was pointing it toward the ceiling. It made strange shadows on his haggard face. “David,” he whispered.
Amanda looked at him, first startled, then scared again.
“Ollie, what is it?” I asked.
“David,” he whispered again. Then: “Come on. Please.”
Amanda Dumfries came forward like a sleepwalker. In one hand she held a plastic floor bucket. In the other she held a whisk broom, still done up in its see-through wrapping. She bent, her eyes still wide and blank, and swept the dead pink thing—bug, slug, whatever it was—into the bucket. You could hear the crackle of the wrapping on the whisk broom as it brushed the floor. She walked over to the OUT door. There were none of the bugs on it. She opened it a little way and threw the bucket out. It landed on its side and rolled back and forth in ever-decreasing arcs. One of the pink things buzzed out of the night, landed on the floor pail, and began to crawl over it.
Amanda burst into tears. I walked over and put an arm around her shoulders.
 
At one-thirty the following morning I was sitting with my back against the white enamel side of the meat counter in a semidoze. Billy’s head was in my lap. He was solidly asleep. Not far away Amanda Dumfries was sleeping with her head pillowed on someone’s jacket.
Not long after the flaming death of the bird-thing, Ollie and I had gone back out to the storage area and had gathered up half a dozen of the pads such as the one I’d covered Billy with earlier. Several people were sleeping on these. We had also brought back several heavy crates of oranges and pears, and four of us working together had been able to swing them to the tops of the lawn-food bags in front of the hole in the glass. The bird-creatures would have a tough time shifting one of those crates; they weighed about ninety pounds each.
But the birds and the buglike things the birds ate weren’t the only things out there. There was the tentacled thing that had taken Norm. There was the frayed clothesline to think about. There was the unseen thing that had uttered that low, guttural roar to think about. We had heard sounds like it since—sometimes quite distant—but how far was “distant” through the damping effect of the mist? And sometimes they were close enough to shake the building and make it seem as if the ventricles of your heart had suddenly been loaded up with ice water.
Billy started in my lap and moaned. I brushed his hair and he moaned more loudly. Then he seemed to find sleep’s less dangerous waters again. My own doze was broken and I was staring wide awake again. Since dark, I had only managed to sleep about ninety minutes, and that had been dream-haunted. In one of the dream fragments it had been the night before again. Billy and Steffy were standing in front of the picture window, looking out at the black and slate-gray waters, out at the silver spinning waterspout that heralded the storm. I tried to get to them, knowing that a strong enough wind could break the window and throw deadly glass darts all the way across the living room. But no matter how I ran, I seemed to get no closer to them. And then a bird rose out of the waterspout, a gigantic scarlet oiseau de mort whose prehistoric wingspan darkened the entire lake from west to east. Its beak opened, revealing a maw the size of the Holland Tunnel. And as the bird came to gobble up my wife and son, a low, sinister voice began to whisper over and over again: The Arrowhead Project… the Arrowhead Project… the Arrowhead Project…
Not that Billy and I were the only ones sleeping poorly. Others screamed in their sleep, and some went on screaming after they woke up. The beer was disappearing from the cooler at a great rate. Buddy Eagleton had restocked it once from out back with no comment. Mike Hatlen told me the Sominex was gone. Not depleted but totally wiped out. He guessed that some people might have taken six or eight bottles.
“There’s some Nytol left,” he said. “You want a bottle, David?” I shook my head and thanked him.
And in the last aisle down by Register 5, we had our winos. There were about seven of them, all out-of-staters except for Lou Tattinger, who ran the Pine Tree Car Wash. Lou didn’t need any excuse to sniff the cork, as the saying was. The wino brigade was pretty well anesthetized.
Oh yes—there were also six or seven people who had gone crazy.
Crazy isn’t the best word; perhaps I just can’t think of the proper one. But there were these people who had lapsed into a complete stupor without benefit of beer, wine, or pills. They stared at you with blank and shiny doorknob eyes. The hard cement of reality had come apart in some unimaginable earthquake, and these poor devils had fallen through. In time, some of them might come back. If there was time.
The rest of us had made our own mental compromises, and in some cases I suppose they were fairly odd. Mrs. Reppler, for instance, was convinced the whole thing was a dream—or so she said. And she spoke with some conviction.
I looked over at Amanda. I was developing an uncomfortably strong feeling for her—uncomfortable but not exactly unpleasant. Her eyes were an incredible, brilliant green… for a while I had kept an eye on her to see if she was going to take out a pair of contact lenses, but apparently the color was true. I wanted to make love to her. My wife was at home, maybe alive, more probably dead, alone either way, and I loved her; I wanted to get Billy and me back to her more than anything, but I also wanted to screw this lady named Amanda Dumfries. I tried to tell myself it was just the situation we were in, and maybe it was, but that didn’t change the wanting.
I dozed in and out, then jerked awake more fully around three. Amanda had shifted into a sort of fetal position, her knees pulled up toward her chest, hands clasped between her thighs. She seemed to be sleeping deeply. Her sweatshirt had pulled up slightly on one side, showing clean white skin. I looked at it and began to get an extremely useless and uncomfortable erection.
I tried to divert my mind to a new track and got thinking about how I had wanted to paint Brent Norton yesterday. No, nothing as important as a painting, but… just sit him on a log with my beer in his hand and sketch his sweaty, tired face and the two wings of his carefully processed hair sticking up untidily in the back. It could have been a good picture. It took me twenty years of living with my father to accept the idea that being good could be good enough.
You know what talent is? The curse of expectation. As a kid you have to deal with that, beat it somehow. If you can write, you think God put you on earth to blow Shakespeare away. Of if you can paint, maybe you think—I did—that God put you on earth to blow your father away.
It turned out I wasn’t as good as he was. I kept trying to be for longer than I should have, maybe. I had a show in New York and it did poorly—the art critics beat me over the head with my father. A year later I was supporting myself and Steff with the commercial stuff. She was pregnant and I sat down and talked to myself about it. The result of that conversation was a belief that serious art was always going to be a hobby for me, no more.
I did Golden Girl Shampoo ads—the one where the Girl is standing astride her bike, the one where she’s playing Frisbee on the beach, the one where she’s standing on the balcony of her apartment with a drink in her hand. I’ve done short-story illustrations for most of the big slicks, but I broke into that field doing fast illustrations for the stories in the sleazier men’s magazines. I’ve done some movie posters. The money comes in. We keep our heads nicely above water.
I had one final show in Bridgton, just last summer. I showed nine canvases that I had painted in five years, and I sold six of them. The one I absolutely would not sell showed the Federal market, by some queer coincidence. The perspective was from the far end of the parking lot. In my picture, the parking lot was empty except for a line of Campbell’s Beans and Franks cans, each one larger than the last as they marched toward the viewer’s eye. The last one appeared to be about eight feet tall. The picture was titled Beans and False Perspective. A man from California who was a top exec in some company that makes tennis balls and rackets and who knows what other sports equipment seemed to want that picture very badly, and would not take no for an answer in spite of the NFS card tucked into the bottom left-hand corner of the spare wooden frame. He began at six hundred dollars and worked his way up to four thousand. He said he wanted it for his study. I would not let him have it, and he went away sorely puzzled. Even so, he didn’t quite give up; he left his card in case I changed my mind.
I could have used the money—that was the year we put the addition on the house and bought the four-wheel-drive—but I just couldn’t sell it. I couldn’t sell it because I felt it was the best painting I had ever done and I wanted it to look at after someone would ask me, with totally unconscious cruelty, when I was going to do something serious.
Then I happened to show it to Ollie Weeks one day last fall. He asked me if he could photograph it and run it as an ad one week, and that was the end of my own false perspective. Ollie had recognized my painting for what it was, and by doing so, he forced me to recognize it, too. A perfectly good piece of slick commercial art. No more. And, thank God, no less.
I let him do it, and then I called the exec at his home in San Luis Obispo and told him he could have the painting for twenty-five hundred if he still wanted it. He did, and I shipped it UPS to the coast. And since then that voice of disappointed expectation—that cheated child’s voice that can never be satisfied with such a mild superlative as good—has fallen pretty much silent. And except for a few rumbles—like the sounds of those unseen creatures somewhere out in the foggy night—it has been pretty much silent ever since. Maybe you can tell me—why should the silencing of that childish, demanding voice seem so much like dying?
 
Around four o’clock Billy woke up—partially, at least—and looked around with bleary, uncomprehending eyes. “Are we still here?”
“Yeah, honey,” I said. “We are.”
He started to cry with a weak helplessness that was horrible. Amanda woke up and looked at us.
“Hey, kid,” she said, and pulled him gently to her. “Everything is going to look a little better come morning.”
“No,” Billy said. “No it won’t. It won’t. It won’t.”
“Shh,” she said. Her eyes met mine over his head. “Shh, it’s past your bedtime.”
“I want my mother!”
“Yeah, you do,” Amanda said. “Of course you do.”
Billy squirmed around in her lap until he could look at me. Which he did for some time. And then slept again.
“Thanks,” I said. “He needed you.”
“He doesn’t even know me.”
“That doesn’t change it.”
“So what do you think?” she asked. Her green eyes held mine steadily. “What do you really think?”
“Ask me in the morning.”
“I’m asking you now.”
I opened my mouth to answer and then Ollie Weeks materialized out of the gloom like something from a horror tale. He had a flashlight with one of the ladies’ blouses over the lens, and he was pointing it toward the ceiling. It made strange shadows on his haggard face. “David,” he whispered.
Amanda looked at him, first startled, then scared again.
“Ollie, what is it?” I asked.
“David,” he whispered again. Then: “Come on. Please.”
“I don’t want to leave Billy. He just went to sleep.”
“I’ll be with him,” Amanda said. “You better go.” Then, in a lower voice: “Jesus, this is never going to end.”
 

About The Author

© Shane Leonard

Stephen King is the author of more than sixty books, all of them worldwide bestsellers. His recent work includes the short story collection You Like It DarkerHollyFairy TaleBilly SummersIf It BleedsThe InstituteElevationThe OutsiderSleeping Beauties (cowritten with his son Owen King), and the Bill Hodges trilogy: End of WatchFinders Keepers, and Mr. Mercedes (an Edgar Award winner for Best Novel and a television series streaming on Peacock). His novel 11/22/63 was named a top ten book of 2011 by The New York Times Book Review and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Mystery/Thriller. His epic works The Dark TowerItPet SemataryDoctor Sleep, and Firestarter are the basis for major motion pictures, with It now the highest-grossing horror film of all time. He is the recipient of the 2020 Audio Publishers Association Lifetime Achievement Award, the 2018 PEN America Literary Service Award, the 2014 National Medal of Arts, and the 2003 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. He lives in Bangor, Maine, with his wife, novelist Tabitha King. 

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (December 6, 2016)
  • Length: 672 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501143502

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