In the weeks before Halloween, Mr. George Amberson inspected almost every commercial-zoned piece of property in Derry and the surrounding towns.
I knew better than to believe that I’d ever be accepted as a townie on short notice, but I wanted to get the locals accustomed to the sight of my sporty red Sunliner convertible, just part of the scenery. There goes that real estate fella, been here almost a month now. If he knows what he’s doin, there might be some money in it for someone.
When people asked me what I was looking for, I’d give a wink and a smile. When people asked me how long I’d be staying, I told them it was hard to say. I learned the geography of the town, and I began to learn the verbal geography of 1958. I learned, for instance, that the war meant World War II; the conflict meant Korea. Both were over, and good riddance. People worried about Russia and the so-called “missile gap,” but not too much. People worried about juvenile delinquency, but not too much. There was a recession, but people had seen worse. When you bargained with someone, it was absolutely okay to say that you jewed em down (or got gypped). Penny candy included dots, wax lips, and niggerbabies. In the South, Jim Crow ruled. In Moscow, Nikita Khrushchev bellowed threats. In Washington, President Eisenhower droned good cheer.
I made a point of checking out the defunct Kitchener Ironworks not long after speaking with Chaz Frati. It was in a large overgrown stretch of empty to the north of town, and yes, it would be the perfect spot for a shopping mall once the extension of the Mile-A-Minute Highway reached it. But on the day I visited — leaving my car and walking when the road turned to axle-smashing rubble — it could have been the ruin of an ancient civilization: look on my works, ye mighty, and despair. Heaps of brick and rusty chunks of old machinery poked out of the high grass. In the middle was a long-collapsed ceramic smokestack, its sides blackened by soot, its huge bore full of darkness. If I’d lowered my head and hunched over, I could have walked into it, and I am not a short man.
I saw a lot of Derry in those weeks before Halloween, and I felt a lot of Derry. Longtime residents were pleasant to me, but — with one exception — never chummy. Chaz Frati was that exception, and in retrospect I guess his unprompted revelations should have struck me as odd, but I had a great many things on my mind, and Frati didn’t seem all that important. I thought, sometimes you just meet a friendly guy, that’s all, and let it go at that. Certainly I had no idea that a man named Bill Turcotte had put Frati up to it.
Bill Turcotte, aka No Suspenders.
Bevvie-from-the-levee had said she thought the bad times in Derry were over, but the more of it I saw (and the more I felt — that especially), the more I came to believe that Derry wasn’t like other places. Derry wasn’t right. At first I tried to tell myself that it was me, not the town. I was a man out of joint, a temporal bedouin, and any place would have felt a little strange to me, a little skewed — like the cities that seem so much like bad dreams in those strange Paul Bowles novels. This was persuasive at first, but as the days passed and I continued to explore my new environment, it became less so. I even began to question Beverly Marsh’s assertion that the bad times were over, and imagined (on nights when I couldn’t sleep, and there were quite a few of those) that she questioned it herself. Hadn’t I glimpsed a seed of doubt in her eyes? The look of someone who doesn’t quite believe but wants to? Maybe even needs to?
Something wrong, something bad.
Certain empty houses that seemed to stare like the faces of people suffering from terrible mental illness. An empty barn on the outskirts of town, the hayloft door swinging slowly open and closed on rusty hinges, first disclosing darkness, then hiding it, then disclosing it again. A splintered fence on Kossuth Street, just a block away from the house where Mrs. Dunning and her children lived. To me that fence looked as if something — or someone —had been hurled through it and into the Barrens below. An empty playground with the roundy-round slowly spinning even though there were no kids to push it and no appreciable wind to turn it. It screamed on its hidden bearings as it moved. One day I saw a roughly carved Jesus go floating down the canal and into the tunnel that ran beneath Canal Street. It was three feet long. The teeth peeped from lips parted in a snarling grin. A crown of thorns, jauntily askew, circled the forehead; bloody tears had been painted below the thing’s weird white eyes. It looked like a juju fetish. On the so-called Kissing Bridge in Bassey Park, amid the declarations of school spirit and undying love, someone had carved the words I WILL KILL MY MOTHER SOON, and below it someone had added: NOT SOON ENOUGH SHES FULL OF DISEEZE. One afternoon while walking on the east side of the Barrens, I heard a terrible squealing and looked up to see the silhouette of a thin man standing on the GS & WM railroad trestle not far away. A stick rose and fell in his hand. He was beating something. The squealing stopped and I thought, It was a dog and he’s finished with it. He took it out there on a rope leash and beat it until it was dead. There was no way I could have known such a thing, of course. . and yet I did. I was sure then, and I am now.
Do any of those things bear on the story I’m telling? The story of the janitor’s father, and of Lee Harvey Oswald (he of the smirky little I-know-a-secret smile and gray eyes that would never quite meet yours)? I don’t know for sure, but I can tell you one more thing: there was something inside that fallen chimney at the Kitchener Ironworks. I don’t know what and I don’t want to know, but at the mouth of the thing I saw a heap of gnawed bones and a tiny chewed collar with a bell on it. A collar that had surely belonged to some child’s beloved kitten. And from inside the pipe — deep in that oversized bore — something moved and shuffled.
Come in and see, that something seemed to whisper in my head. Never mind all the rest of it, Jake — come in and see. Come in and visit. Time doesn’t matter in here; in here, time just floats away. You know you want to, you know you’re curious. Maybe it’s even another rabbit-hole. Another portal.
Maybe it was, but I don’t think so. I think it was Derry in there — everything that was wrong with it, everything that was askew, hiding in that pipe. Hibernating. Letting people believe the bad times were over, waiting for them to relax and forget there had ever been bad times at all.
I left in a hurry, and to that part of Derry I never went back.
One day in the second week of October — by then the oaks and elms on Kossuth Street were a riot of gold and red — I once more visited the defunct West Side Rec. No self-respecting real estate bounty hunter would fail to fully investigate the possibilities of such a prime site, and I asked several people on the street what it was like inside (the door was padlocked, of course) and when it had closed.
One of the people I spoke to was Doris Dunning. Pretty as a picture, Chaz Frati had said. A generally meaningless cliché, but true in this case. The years had put fine lines around her eyes and deeper ones at the corners of her mouth, but she had exquisite skin and a terrific full-breasted figure (in 1958, the heyday of Jayne Mansfield, full breasts are considered attractive rather than embarrassing). We spoke on the stoop. To invite me in with the house empty and the kids at school would have been improper and no doubt the subject of neighborly gossip, especially with her husband “living out.” She had a dustrag in one hand and a cigarette in the other. There was a bottle of furniture polish poking out of her apron pocket. Like most folks in Derry, she was polite but distant.
Yes, she said, when it was still up and running, West Side Rec had been a fine facility for the kiddos. It was so nice to have a place like that close by where they could go after school and race around to their hearts’ content. She could see the playground and the basketball court from her kitchen window, and it was very sad to see them empty. She said she thought the Rec had been closed in a round of budget cuts, but the way her eyes shifted and her mouth tucked in suggested something else to me: that it had been closed during the round of child-murders and disappearances. Budget concerns might have been secondary.
I thanked her and handed her one of my recently printed business cards. She took it, gave me a distracted smile, and closed the door. It was a gentle close, not a slam, but I heard a rattle from behind it and knew she was putting on the chain.
I thought the Rec might do for my purposes when Halloween came, although I didn’t completely love it. I anticipated no problems getting inside, and one of the front windows would give me a fine view of the street. Dunning might come in his car rather than on foot, but I knew what it looked like. It would be after dark, according to Harry’s essay, but there were streetlights.
Of course, that visibility thing cut both ways. Unless he was totally fixated on what he’d come to do, Dunning would almost certainly see me running at him. I had the pistol, but it was only dead accurate up to fifteen yards. I’d need to be even closer before I dared risk a shot, because on Halloween night, Kossuth Street was sure to be alive with pint-sized ghosts and goblins. Yet I couldn’t wait until he actually got in the house before breaking cover, because according to the essay, Doris Dunning’s estranged husband had gone to work right away. By the time Harry came out of the bathroom, all of them were down and all but Ellen were dead. If I waited, I was apt to see what Harry had seen: his mother’s brains soaking into the couch.
I hadn’t traveled across more than half a century to save just one of them. And so what if he saw me coming? I was the man with the gun, he was the man with the hammer — probably filched from the tool drawer at his boardinghouse. If he ran at me, that would be good. I’d be like a rodeo clown, distracting the bull. I’d caper and yell until he got in range, then put two in his chest.
Assuming I was able to pull the trigger, that was.
And assuming the gun worked. I’d test-fired it in a gravel pit on the outskirts of town, and it seemed fine. . but the past is obdurate.
It doesn’t want to change.
Upon further consideration, I thought there might be an even better location for my Halloween-night stakeout. I’d need a little luck, but maybe not too much. God knows there’s plenty for sale in these parts, bartender Fred Toomey had said on my first night in Derry. My explorations had borne that out. In the wake of the murders (and the big flood of ’57, don’t forget that), it seemed that half the town was for sale. In a less standoffish burg, a supposed real-estate buyer like myself probably would have been given a key to the city and a wild weekend with Miss Derry by now.
One street I hadn’t checked out was Wyemore Lane, a block south of Kossuth Street. That meant the Wyemore backyards would abut on Kossuth backyards. It couldn’t hurt to check.
Though 206 Wyemore, the house directly behind the Dunnings’, was occupied, the one next to it on the left—202—looked like an answered prayer. The gray paint was fresh and the shingles were new, but the shutters were closed up tight. On the freshly raked lawn was a yellow-and-green sign I’d seen all over town: FOR SALE BY DERRY HOME REAL ESTATE SPECIALISTS. This one invited me to call Specialist Keith Haney and discuss financing. I had no intention of doing that, but I parked my Sunliner in the newly asphalted driveway (someone was going all-out to sell this one) and walked into the backyard, head up, shoulders back, big as Billy-be-damned. I had discovered many things while exploring my new environment, and one of them was that if you acted like you belonged in a certain place, people thought you did.
The backyard was nicely mowed, the leaves raked away to showcase the velvety green. A push lawnmower had been stored under the garage overhang with a swatch of green tarpaulin tucked neatly over the rotary blades. Beside the cellar bulkhead was a doghouse with a sign on it that showed Keith Haney at his don’t-miss-a-trick best: YOUR POOCH BELONGS HERE. Inside was a pile of unused leaf-bags with a garden trowel and a pair of hedge clippers to hold them down. In 2011, the tools would have been locked away; in 1958, someone had taken care to see they were out of the rain and called it good. I was sure the house was locked, but that was okay. I had no interest in breaking and entering.
At the far end of 202 Wyemore’s backyard was a hedge about six feet tall. Not quite as tall as I was, in other words, and although it was luxuriant, a man could force his way through easily enough if he didn’t mind a few scratches. Best of all, when I walked down to the far right corner, which was behind the garage, I was able to look on a diagonal into the backyard of the Dunning house. I saw two bicycles. One was a boy’s Schwinn, leaning on its kickstand. The other, lying on its side like a dead pony, was Ellen Dunning’s. There was no mistaking the training wheels.
There was also a litter of toys. One of them was Harry Dunning’s Daisy air rifle.
If you’ve ever acted in an amateur stage company — or directed student theatricals, which I had several times while at LHS — you’ll know what the days leading up to Halloween were like for me. At first, rehearsals have a lazy feel. There’s improvisation, joking, horseplay, and a good deal of flirting as sexual polarities are established. If someone flubs a line or misses a cue in those early rehearsals, it’s an occasion for laughter. If an actor shows up fifteen minutes late, he or she might get a mild reprimand, but probably nothing more.
Then opening night begins to seem like an actual possibility instead of a foolish dream. Improv falls away. So does the horseplay, and although the jokes remain, the laughter that greets them has a nervous energy that was missing before. Flubbed lines and missed cues begin to seem exasperating rather than amusing. An actor arriving late for rehearsal once the sets are up and opening night is only days away is apt to get a serious reaming from the director.
The big night comes. The actors put on their costumes and makeup. Some are outright terrified; all feel not quite prepared. Soon they will have to face a roomful of people who have come to see them strut their stuff. What seemed distant in the days of bare-stage blocking has come after all. And before the curtain goes up, some Hamlet, Willy Loman, or Blanche DuBois will have to rush into the nearest bathroom and be sick. It never fails.
Trust me on the sickness part. I know.
In the small hours of Halloween morning, I found myself not in Derry but on the ocean. A stormy ocean. I was clinging to the rail of a large vessel — a yacht, I think — that was on the verge of foundering. Rain driven by a howling gale was sheeting into my face. Huge waves, black at their bases and a curdled, foamy green on top, rushed toward me. The yacht rose, twisted, then plummeted down again with a wild corkscrewing motion.
I woke from this dream with my heart pounding and my hands still curled from trying to hold onto the rail my brain had dreamed up. Only it wasn’t just my brain, because the bed was still going up and down. My stomach seemed to have come unmoored from the muscles that were supposed to hold it in place.
At such moments, the body is almost always wiser than the brain. I threw back the covers and sprinted for the bathroom, kicking over the hateful yellow chair as I sped through the kitchen. My toes would be sore later, but right then I barely felt it. I tried to lock my throat shut, but only partially succeeded. I could hear a weird sound seeping through it and into my mouth. Ulk-ulk-urp-ulk was what it sounded like. My stomach was the yacht, first rising and then taking those horrible corkscrew drops. I fell on my knees in front of the toilet and threw up my dinner. Next came lunch and yesterday’s breakfast: oh God, ham and eggs. At the thought of all that shining grease, I retched again. There was a pause, and then what felt like everything I’d eaten for the last week left the building.
Just as I began to hope it was over, my bowels gave a terrible liquid wrench. I stumbled to my feet, batted down the toilet ring, and managed to sit before everything fell out in a watery splat.
But no. Not everything, not yet. My stomach took another giddy heave just as my bowels went to work again. There was only one thing to do, and I did it: leaned forward and vomited into the sink.
It went on like that until noon of Halloween day. By then both of my ejection-ports were producing nothing but watery gruel. Each time I threw up, each time my bowels cramped, I thought the same thing: The past does not want to be changed. The past is obdurate.
But when Frank Dunning arrived tonight, I meant to be there. Even if I was still heaving and shitting graywater, I meant to be there. Even if it killed me, I meant to be there.
Mr. Norbert Keene, proprietor of the Center Street Drug, was behind the counter when I came in on that Friday afternoon. The wooden paddle-fan over his head lifted what remained of his hair in a wavery dance: cobwebs in a summer breeze. Just looking at that made my abused stomach give another warning lurch. He was skinny inside his white cotton smock — almost emaciated — and when he saw me coming, his pale lips creased in a smile.
“You look a little under the weather, my friend.”
“Kaopectate,” I said in a hoarse voice that didn’t sound like my own. “Do you have it?” Wondering if it had even been invented yet.
“Are we suffering a little touch of the bug?” The overhead light caught in the lenses of his small rimless spectacles and skated around when he moved his head. Like butter across a skillet, I thought, and at that my stomach gave another lunge. “It’s been going around town. You’re in for a nasty twenty-four hours, I’m afraid. Probably a germ, but you may have used a public convenience and forgotten to wash your hands. So many people are lazy about th—”
“Do you have Kaopectate or not?”
“Of course. Second aisle.”
“Continence pants — what about those?”
The thin-lipped grin spread out. Continence pants are funny, of course they are. Unless, of course, you’re the one who needs them. “Fifth aisle. Although if you stay close to home, you won’t need them. Based on your pallor, sir. . and the way you’re sweating. . it might be wiser to do that.”
“Thanks,” I said, and imagined socking him square in the mouth and knocking his dentures down his throat. Suck on a little Polident, pal.
I shopped slowly, not wanting to joggle my liquefied guts any more than necessary. Got the Kaopectate (Large Economy Size? check), then the continence pants (Adult Large? check). The pants were in Ostomy Supplies, between the enema bags and brooding yellow coils of plastic hose whose function I didn’t want to know about. There were also adult diapers, but at those I balked. If necessary, I would stuff the continence pants with dish towels. This struck me as funny, and despite my misery I had to struggle not to laugh. Laughing in my current delicate state might bring on disaster.
As if sensing my distress, the skeletal druggist rang up my items in slow motion. I paid him, holding out a five-dollar bill with a hand that was shaking appreciably.
“Just one thing. I’m miserable, you can see I’m miserable, so why the hell are you grinning at me?”
Mr. Keene took a step backward, the smile falling from his lips. “I assure you, I wasn’t grinning. I certainly hope you feel better.”
My bowels cramped. I staggered a little, grabbing the paper bag with my stuff inside it and holding onto the counter with my free hand. “Do you have a bathroom?”
The smile reappeared. “Not for customers, I’m afraid. Why not try one of the. . the establishments across the street?”
“You’re quite the bastard, aren’t you? The perfect goddam Derry citizen.”
He stiffened, then turned away and stalked into the nether regions where his pills, powders, and syrups were kept.
I walked slowly past the soda fountain and out the door. I felt like a man made of glass. The day was cool, no more than forty-five degrees, but the sun felt hot on my skin. And sticky. My bowels cramped again. I stood stock-still for a moment with my head down, one foot on the sidewalk and one in the gutter. The cramp passed. I crossed the street without looking for traffic, and someone honked at me. I restrained myself from flipping the bird at the honker, but only because I had enough trouble. I couldn’t risk getting into a fight; I was in one already.
The cramp struck again, a double knife to the lower gut. I broke into a run. The Sleepy Silver Dollar was closest, so that was the door I jerked open, hustling my unhappy body into semidarkness and the yeasty smell of beer. On the jukebox, Conway Twitty was moaning that it was only make-believe. I wished he were right.
The place was empty except for one patron sitting at an empty table, looking at me with startled eyes, and the bartender leaning at the end of the stick, doing the crossword puzzle in the daily paper. He looked up at me.
“Bathroom,” I said. “Quick.”
He pointed to the back, and I sprinted toward the doors marked BUOYS and GULLS. I straight-armed BUOYS like a fullback looking for open field to run in. The place stank of shit, cigarette smoke, and eye-watering chlorine. The single toilet stall had no door, which was probably good. I tore my pants open like Superman late for a bank robbery, turned, and dropped.
Just in time.
When the latest throe had passed, I took the giant bottle of Kaopectate out of the paper bag and chugged three long swallows. My stomach heaved. I fought it back into place. When I was sure the first dose was going to stay down, I slugged another one, belched, and slowly screwed the cap back into place. On the wall to my left, someone had drawn a penis and testicles. The testicles were split open, and blood was gushing from them. Below this charming image, the artist had written: HENRY CASTONGUAY NEXT TIME YOU FUCK MY WIFE THIS IS WHAT YOU GET.
I closed my eyes, and when I did, I saw the startled patron who had watched my charge to the bathroom. But was he a patron? There had been nothing on his table; he had just been sitting there. With my eyes closed, I could see that face clearly. It was one I knew.
When I went back into the bar, Ferlin Husky had replaced Conway Twitty, and No Suspenders was gone. I went to the bartender and said, “There was a guy sitting over there when I came in. Who was it?”
He looked up from his puzzle. “I didn’t see no one.”
I took out my wallet, removed a five, and put it on the bar beside a Narragansett coaster. “The name.”
He held a brief silent dialogue with himself, glanced at the tip jar beside the one holding pickled eggs, saw nothing inside but one lonely dime, and made the five disappear. “That was Bill Turcotte.”
The name meant nothing to me. The empty table might mean nothing, either, but on the other hand. .
I put Honest Abe’s twin brother on the bar. “Did he come in here to watch me?” If the answer to that was yes, it meant he had been following me. Maybe not just today, either. But why?
The bartender pushed the five back. “All I know is what he usually comes in for is beer and a lot of it.”
“Then why did he leave without having one?”
“Maybe he looked in his wallet and didn’t see nothing but his liberry card. Do I look like fuckin Bridey Murphy? Now that you’ve stunk up my bathroom, why don’t you either order something or leave?”
“It was stinking just fine before I got there, my friend.”
Not much of an exit line, but the best I could do under the circumstances. I went out and stood on the sidewalk, looking for Turcotte. There was no sign of him, but Norbert Keene was standing in the window of his drugstore, hands clasped behind his back, watching me. His smile was gone.
At five-twenty that afternoon, I parked my Sunliner in the lot adjacent to the Witcham Street Baptist Church. It had plenty of company; according to the signboard, there was a 5:00 P.M. AA meeting at this particular church. In the Ford’s trunk were all the possessions I’d collected during my seven weeks as a resident of what I had come to think of as the Peculiar Little City. The only indispensable items were in the Lord Buxton briefcase Al had given me: his notes, my notes, and the remaining cash. Thank God I’d kept most of it in portable form.
Beside me on the seat was a paper bag containing my bottle of Kaopectate — now three-quarters empty — and the continence pants. Thankfully, I didn’t think I was going to need those. My stomach and bowels seemed to have settled, and the shakes had left my hands. There were half a dozen Payday candybars in the glove compartment lying on top of my Police Special. I added these items to the bag. Later, when I was in position between the garage and the hedge at 202 Wyemore Lane, I’d load the gun and stuff it into my belt. Like a cheap gunsel in the kind of B pictures that played The Strand.
There was one other item in the glove compartment: an issue of TV Guide with Fred Astaire and Barrie Chase on the cover. For probably the dozenth time since I’d bought the magazine at the newsstand on upper Main Street, I turned to the Friday listings.
8 PM, Channel 2: The New Adventures of Ellery Queen, George Nader, Les Tremayne. “So Rich, So Lovely, So Dead.” A conniving stockbroker (Whit Bissell) stalks a wealthy heiress (Eva Gabor) as Ellery and his father investigate.
I put it into the bag with the other stuff — mostly for good luck — then got out, locked my car, and set out for Wyemore Lane. I passed a few mommies and daddies trick-or-treating with children too young to be out on their own. Carved pumpkins grinned cheerfully from many stoops, and a couple of stuffed straw-hat-wearing dummies stared at me blankly.
I walked down Wyemore Lane in the middle of the sidewalk as if I had every right to be there. When a father approached, holding the hand of a little girl wearing dangly gypsy earrings, mom’s bright red lipstick, and big black plastic ears clapped over a curly-haired wig, I tipped my hat to Dad and bent down to the child, who was carrying a paper bag of her own.
“Who are you, honey?”
“Annette Foonijello,” she said. “She’s the prettiest Mouseketeer.”
“And you’re just as pretty,” I told her. “Now what do you say?”
She looked puzzled, so her father leaned over and whispered in her ear. She brightened into a smile. “Trigger-treat!”
“Right,” I said. “But no tricks tonight.” Except for the one I hoped to play on the man with the hammer.
I took a Payday from my bag (I had to paw past the gun to get it), and held it out. She opened her bag and I dropped it in. I was just a guy on the street, a perfect stranger in a town that had been beset by terrible crimes not long ago, but I saw the same childlike trust on the faces of both father and daughter. The days of candy doctored with LSD were far in the future — as were those of DO NOT USE IF SEAL IS BROKEN.
The father whispered again.
“Thank you, mister,” Annette Foonijello said.
“Very welcome.” I winked to Dad. “You two have a great night.”
“She’ll probably have a bellyache tomorrow,” Dad said, but he smiled. “Come on, Punkin.”
“I’m Annette !” she said.
“Sorry, sorry. Come on, Annette.” He gave me a grin, tipped his own hat, and they were off again, in search of plunder.
I continued on to 202, not too fast. I would have whistled if my lips hadn’t been so dry. At the driveway I risked one quick look around. I saw a few trick-or-treaters on the other side of the street, but no one who was paying the slightest attention to me. Excellent. I walked briskly up the driveway. Once I was behind the house, I breathed a sigh of relief so deep it seemed to come all the way from my heels. I took up my position in the far right corner of the backyard, safely hidden between the garage and the hedge. Or so I thought.
I peered into the Dunnings’ backyard. The bikes were gone. Most of the toys were still there — a child’s bow and some arrows with suction-cup tips, a baseball bat with its handle wrapped in friction tape, a green Hula Hoop — but the Daisy air rifle was missing. Harry had taken it inside. He meant to bring it when he went out trick-or-treating as Buffalo Bob.
Had Tugga given him shit about that yet? Had his mother already said you take it if you want to, it’s not a real gun ? If not, they would. Their lines had already been written. My stomach cramped, this time not from the twenty-four-hour bug that was going around, but because total realization — the kind you feel in your gut — had finally arrived in all its bald-ass glory. This was actually going to happen. In fact, it was happening already. The show had started.
I glanced at my watch. It seemed to me that I’d left the car in the church parking lot an hour ago, but it was only quarter to six. In the Dunning house, the family would be sitting down to supper. . although if I knew kids, the younger ones would be too excited to eat much, and Ellen would already be wearing her Princess Summerfall Winterspring outfit. She’d probably jumped into it as soon as she got home from school, and would be driving her mother crazy with requests to help her put on her warpaint.
I sat down with my back propped against the rear wall of the garage, rummaged in my bag, and brought out a Payday. I held it up and considered poor old J. Alfred Prufrock. I wasn’t so different, although it was a candybar I wasn’t sure I dared to eat. On the other hand, I had a lot to do in the next three hours or so, and my stomach was a rumbling hollow.
Fuck it, I thought, and unwrapped the candybar. It was wonderful — sweet, salty, and chewy. I gobbled most of it in two bites. I was getting ready to pop the rest of it into my mouth (and wondering why in God’s name I hadn’t packed a sandwich and a bottle of Coke), when I saw movement from the corner of my left eye. I started to turn, reaching into the bag for the gun at the same time, but I was too late. Something cold and sharp pricked the hollow of my left temple.
“Take your hand out of that bag.”
I knew the voice at once. Should hope to smile n kiss a pig, its owner had said when I asked if he or any of his friends knew a fellow named Dunning. He had said Derry was full of Dunnings, and I verified that for myself not long after, but he’d had a good idea which one I was after right from the get-go, hadn’t he? And this was the proof.
The point of the blade dug a little deeper, and I felt a trickle of blood run down the side of my face. It was warm against my chilly skin. Almost hot.
“Take it out now, chum. I think I know what’s in there, and if your hand don’t come out empty, your Halloween treat’s gonna be eighteen inches of Jap steel. This thing’s plenty sharp. It’ll pop right out the other side of your head.”
I took my hand out of the bag — empty — and turned to look at No Suspenders. His hair tumbled over his ears and forehead in greasy locks. His dark eyes swam in his pale, stubbly face. I felt a dismay so great it was almost despair. Almost. . but not quite. Even if it kills me, I thought again. Even if.
“There’s nothing in the bag but candybars,” I said mildly. “If you want one, Mr. Turcotte, all you have to do is ask. I’ll give you one.”
He snatched the bag before I could reach in. He used the hand that wasn’t holding the weapon, which turned out to be a bayonet. I don’t know if it was Japanese or not, but from the way it gleamed in the fading dusklight, I was willing to stipulate that it was plenty sharp.
He rummaged and brought out my Police Special. “Nothing but candybars, huh? This don’t look like candy to me, Mister Amberson.”
“I need that.”
“Yeah, and people in hell need icewater, but they don’t get it.”
“Keep your voice down,” I said.
He put my gun in his belt — exactly where I had imagined I’d put it, once I’d shoved through the hedge and into the Dunning backyard — then poked the bayonet toward my eyes. It took willpower to keep from flinching back. “Don’t you tell me what to—” He staggered on his feet. He rubbed first his stomach, then his chest, then the stubble-rough column of his neck, as if something were caught in there. I heard a click in his throat as he swallowed.
“Mr. Turcotte? Are you all right?”
“How do you know my name?” And then, without waiting for an answer: “It was Pete, wasn’t it? The bartender in the Sleepy. He told you.”
“Yes. Now I’ve got a question for you. How long have you been following me? And why?”
He grinned humorlessly, revealing a pair of missing teeth. “That’s two questions.”
“Just answer them.”
“You act like”—he winced again, swallowed again, and leaned against the back wall of the garage—“like you’re the one in charge.”
I gauged Turcotte’s pallor and distress. Mr. Keene might be a bastard with a streak of sadism, but I thought that as a diagnostician he wasn’t too bad. After all, who’s more apt to know what’s going around than the local druggist? I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to need the rest of the Kaopectate, but Bill Turcotte might. Not to mention the continence pants, once that bug really went to work.
This could be very good or very bad, I thought. But that was bullshit. There was nothing good about it.
Never mind. Keep him talking. And once the puking starts — assuming it does before he cuts my throat or shoots me with my own gun — jump him.
“Just tell me,” I said. “I think I have a right to know, since I haven’t done anything to you.”
“It’s him you mean to do something to, that’s what I think. All that real estate stuff you’ve been spouting around town — so much crap. You came here looking for him. ” He nodded in the direction of the house on the other side of the hedge. “I knew it the minute his name jumped out of your mouth.”
“How could you? This town is full of Dunnings, you said so yourself.”
“Yeah, but only one I care about.” He raised the hand holding the bayonet and wiped sweat off his brow with his sleeve. I think I could have taken him right then, but I was afraid the sound of a scuffle might attract attention. And if the gun went off, I’d probably be the one to take the bullet.
Also, I was curious.
“He must have done you a hell of a good turn somewhere along the way to turn you into his guardian angel,” I said.
He voiced a humorless yap of a laugh. “That’s a hot one, bub, but in a way it’s true. I guess I am sort of his guardian angel. At least for now.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean he’s mine, Amberson. That son of a bitch killed my little sister, and if anyone puts a bullet in him. . or a blade”—he brandished the bayonet in front of his pale, grim face—“it’s going to be me.”
I stared at him with my mouth open. Somewhere in the distance there was a rattle of pops as some Halloween miscreant set off a string of firecrackers. Kids were shouting their way up and down Witcham Street. But here it was just the two of us. Christy and her fellow alcoholics called themselves the Friends of Bill; we were the Enemies of Frank. A perfect team, you would say. . except Bill “No Suspenders” Turcotte didn’t look like much of a team player.
“You. .” I stopped and shook my head. “Tell me.”
“If you’re half as bright as you think you are, you should be able to put it together for yourself. Or didn’t Chazzy tell you enough?”
At first that didn’t compute. Then it did. The little man with the mermaid on his forearm and the cheerful chipmunk face. Only that face hadn’t looked so cheerful when Frank Dunning had clapped him on the back and told him to keep his nose clean, because it was too long to get dirty. Before that, while Frank was still telling jokes at the Tracker brothers’ bullshit table at the back of The Lamplighter, Chaz Frati had filled me in about Dunning’s bad temper. . which, thanks to the janitor’s essay, was no news to me. He got a girl pregnant. After a year or two, she collected the baby and scrammed.
“Is somethin comin through on the radio waves, Commander Cody? Looks like it might be.”
“Frank Dunning’s first wife was your sister.”
“Well there. The man says the secret woid and wins a hunnert dollars.”
“Mr. Frati said she took the baby and ran out on him. Because she got enough of him turning ugly when he drank.”
“Yeah, that’s what he told you, and that’s what most people in town believe — what Chazzy believes, for all I know — but I know better. Clara n me was always close. Growin up it was me for her and her for me. You probably don’t know about a thing like that, you strike me as a mighty cold fish, but that’s how it was.”
I thought about that one good year I’d had with Christy — six months before the marriage and six months after. “Not that cold. I know what you’re talking about.”
He was rubbing at himself again, although I don’t think he was aware of it: belly to chest, chest to throat, back down to the chest again. His face was paler than ever. I wondered what he’d had for lunch, but didn’t think I’d have to wonder for long; soon I’d be able to see for myself.
“Yeah? Then maybe you’d think it’s a little funny that she never wrote me after her n Mikey got settled somewhere. Not so much as a postcard. Me, I think it’s a lot more than funny. Because she woulda. She knew how I felt about her. And she knew how much I loved that kiddo. She was twenty and Mikey was sixteen months old when that joke-tellin cuntwipe reported em missin. That was the summer of ’38. She’d be forty now, and my nephew’d be twenty-one. Old enough to fuckin vote. And you want to tell me she’d never write a single line to the brother who kep Nosey Royce from stickin his wrinkled old meat inside her back when we was kids? Or to ask for a little money to help her get set up in Boston or New Haven or wherever? Mister, I would have—”
He winced, made a little urk-ulp sound I was very familiar with, and staggered back against the garage wall.
“You need to sit down,” I said. “You’re sick.”
“I never get sick. I ain’t even had a cold since I was in sixth grade.”
If so, that bug would blitzkrieg him like the Germans rolling into Warsaw.
“It’s stomach flu, Turcotte. I was up all night with it. Mr. Keene at the drugstore says it’s going around.”
“That narrow-ass ole lady don’t know nothin. I’m fine.” He gave his greasy clumps of hair a toss to show me how fine he was. His face was paler than ever. The hand holding the Japanese bayonet was shaking the way mine had until noon today. “Do you want to hear this or not?”
“Sure.” I snuck a glance at my watch. It was ten past six. The time that had been dragging so slowly was now speeding up. Where was Frank Dunning right now? Still at the market? I thought not. I thought he had left early today, maybe saying he was going to take his kids trick-or-treating. Only that wasn’t the plan. He was in a bar somewhere, and not The Lamplighter. That was where he went for a single beer, two at the most. Which he could handle, although — if my wife was a fair example, and I thought she was — he would always leave dry-mouthed, with his brain raging for more.
No, when he felt the need to really take a bath in the stuff, he’d want to do it in one of Derry’s down-and-dirty bars: the Spoke, the Sleepy, the Bucket. Maybe even one of the absolute dives that hung over the polluted Kenduskeag — Wally’s or the scabrous Paramount Lounge, where ancient whores with waxwork faces still populated most of the stools at the bar. And did he tell jokes that got the whole place laughing? Did people even approach him as he went about the job of pouring grain alcohol onto the coals of rage at the back of his brain? Not unless they wanted impromptu dental work.
“When my sister n nephew disappeared, them n Dunning was livin in a little rented house out by the Cashman town line. He was drinkin heavy, and when he drinks heavy, he exercises his fuckin fists. I seen the bruises on her, and once Mikey was black n blue all the way up his little right arm from the wrist to the elbow. I says, ‘Sis, is he beatin on you n the baby? Because if he is, I’ll beat on him. ’ She says no, but she wouldn’t look at me when she said it. She says, ‘You stay away from him, Billy. He’s strong. You are too, I know it, but you’re skinny. A hard wind would blow you away. He’d hurt you.’ It wasn’t six months after that when she disappeared. Took off, that’s what he said. But there’s a lot of woods out that side of town. Hell, once you get into Cashman, there’s nothing but woods. Woods n swamp. You know what really happened, don’t you?”
I did. Others might not believe it because Dunning was now a well-respected citizen who seemed to have controlled his drinking a long time ago. Also because he had charm to spare. But I had inside information, didn’t I?
“I think he snapped. I think he came home drunk and she said the wrong thing, maybe something completely innocuous—”
I peered through the hedge into the backyard. Beyond it, a woman passed the kitchen window and was gone. In casa Dunning, dinner was served. Would they be having dessert? Jell-O with Dream Whip? Ritz cracker pie? I thought not. Who needs dessert on Halloween night? “What I’m saying is that he killed them. Isn’t that what you think?”
“Yeah. .” He looked both taken aback and suspicious. I think obsessives always look that way when they hear the things that have kept them up long nights not just articulated but corroborated. It has to be a trick, they think. Only this was no trick. And it certainly wasn’t a treat.
I said, “Dunning was what, twenty-two? Whole life ahead of him. He must have been thinking, ‘Well, I did an awful thing here, but I can clean it up. We’re out in the woods, nearest neighbors a mile away. . ’ Were they a mile away, Turcotte?”
“At least.” He said it grudgingly. One hand was massaging the base of his throat. The bayonet had sagged. Grabbing it with my right hand would have been simple, and grabbing the revolver out of his belt with the other wouldn’t have been out of the question, but I didn’t want to. I thought the bug would take care of Mr. Bill Turcotte. I really thought it would be that simple. You see how easy it is to forget the obduracy of the past?
“So he took the bodies out in the woods and buried them and said they’d run off. There couldn’t have been much of an investigation.”
Turcotte turned his head and spat. “He come from a good old Derry fambly. Mine come down from the Saint John Valley in a rusty ole pickup truck when I was ten n Clara was eight. Just on parle trash. What do you think?”
I thought it was another case of Derry being Derry — that’s what I thought. And while I understood Turcotte’s love and sympathized with his loss, he was talking about an old crime. It was the one that was scheduled to happen in less than two hours that concerned me.
“You set me up with Frati, didn’t you?” This was now obvious, but still disappointing. I’d thought the guy was just being friendly, passing on a little local gossip over beer and Lobster Pickin’s. Wrong. “Pal of yours?”
Turcotte smiled, but it looked more like a grimace. “Me friends with a rich kike pawnbroker? That’s a laugh. You want to hear a little story?”
I took another peek at my watch and saw I still had some time to spare. While Turcotte was talking, that old stomach virus would be hard at work. The first time he bent over to puke, I intended to pounce.
“Me, Dunning, and Chaz Frati are all the same age — forty-two. You believe that?”
“Sure.” But Turcotte, who had lived hard (and was now getting sick, little as he wanted to admit it), looked ten years older than either of them.
“When we was all seniors at the old Consolidated, I was assistant manager of the football team. Tiger Bill, they called me — ain’t that cute? I tried out for the team when I was a freshman and then again when I was a sophomore, but I got cut both times. Too skinny for the line, too slow for the backfield. Story of my fuckin life, mister. But I loved the game, and I couldn’t afford the dime to buy a ticket — my fambly didn’t have nothin —so I took on bein assistant manager. Nice name, but do you know what it means?”
Sure I did. In my Jake Epping life, I wasn’t Mr. Real Estate but Mr. High School, and some things don’t change. “You were the waterboy.”
“Yeah, I brought em water. And held the puke-bucket if someone got sick after runnin laps on a hot day or took a helmet in the nuts. Also the guy who stayed late to pick up all their crud on the field and fished their shit-stained jocks off the shower room floor.”
He grimaced. I imagined his stomach turning into a yacht on a stormy sea. Up she goes, mateys. . then the corkscrew plunge.
“So one day in September or October of ’34, I’m out there after practice all on my lonesome, pickin up dropped pads and elastic bandages and all the other stuff they used to leave behind, puttin it all in my wheelie-basket, and what do I see but Chaz Frati tear-assin across the football field, droppin his books behind him. A bunch of boys was chasin him and—Christ, what was that?”
He stared around, eyes bulging in his pale face. Once again I maybe could have grabbed the pistol, and the bayonet for sure, but I didn’t. His hand was rubbing his chest again. Not his stomach, but his chest. That probably should have told me something, but I had too much on my mind. His story was not the least of it. That’s the curse of the reading class. We can be seduced by a good story even at the least opportune moments.
“Relax, Turcotte. It’s just kids shooting off firecrackers. Halloween, remember?”
“I don’t feel so good. Maybe you’re right about that bug.”
If he thought he might be getting sick enough to be incapacitated, he might do something rash. “Never mind the bug just now. Tell me about Frati.”
He grinned. It was an unsettling expression on that pale, sweaty, stubbly face. “Ole Chazzy ran like hell, but they caught up with him. There was a ravine about twenty yards past the goalposts at the south end of the field, and they pushed him down into it. Would you be s’prized to know that Frankie Dunning was one of em?”
I shook my head.
“They got him down in there, and they pantsed him. Then they started pushin him around and takin smacks at him. I yelled for em to quit it, and one of em looks up at me and yells, ‘Come on down and make us, fuckface. We’ll give you double what we’re givin him.’ So I ran for the locker room and told some of the football players that a bunch of yeggs were bullyin up on a kid and maybe they wanted to put a stop to it. Well, they didn’t give a shit about who was gettin bullied and who wasn’t, but those guys were always up for a fight. They run on out, some of em not wearin nothin but their underwear. And you want to know somethin really funny, Amberson?”
“Sure.” I took another quick glance at my watch. Almost quarter of seven now. In the Dunning house, Doris would be doing the dishes and maybe listening to Huntley-Brinkley on the television.
“You late for somethin?” Turcotte asked. “Got a fuckin train to catch?”
“You were going to tell me something funny.”
“Oh. Yeah. They was singin the school song! How do you like that?”
In my mind’s eye I could see eight or ten beefy half-dressed boys churning across the field, eager to do a little post-practice hitting, and singing Hail Derry Tigers, we hold your banner high. It was sort of funny.
Turcotte saw my grin and answered with one of his own. It was strained but genuine. “The footballies baffed a couple of those guys around pretty good. Not Frankie Dunning, though; that yellabelly saw they was gonna be outnumbered and run into the woods. Chazzy was layin on the ground, holdin his arm. It was broke. Could have been a lot worse, though. They woulda put him in the hospital. One of the footballies looks at him layin there and kinda toes at him — the way you might toe a cow patty you almost stepped in — and he says, ‘We ran all the way out here to save a jewboy’s bacon?’ And a bunch of em laughed, because it was kind of a joke, you see. Jewboy? Bacon?” He peered at me through clumps of his Brylcreem-shiny hair.
“I get it,” I said.
“‘Aw, who gives a fuck,’ another of em says. ‘I got to kick some ass and that’s good enough for me.’ They went on back, and I helped ole Chaz up the ravine. I even walked home with im, because I thought he might faint or somethin. I was scared Frankie and his friends might come back — he was, too — but I stuck with him. Fuck if I know just why. You should have seen the house he lived in — a fuckin palace. That hockshop business must really pay. When we got there, he thanked me. Meant it, too. He was just about bawlin. I says, ‘Don’t mention it, I just didn’t like seeing six-on-one.’ Which was true. But you know what they say about Jews: they never forget a debt or a favor.”
“Which you called in to find out what I was doing.”
“I had a pretty good idea what you were doin, chum. I just wanted to make sure. Chaz told me to leave it alone — he said he thought you were a nice guy — but when it comes to Frankie Dunning, I don’t leave it alone. Nobody messes with Frankie Dunning but me. He’s mine. ”
He winced and went back to rubbing his chest. And this time the penny dropped.
“Turcotte—is it your stomach?”
“Naw, chest. Feels all tight.”
That didn’t sound good, and the thought that went through my mind was now he’s in the nylon stocking, too.
“Sit down before you fall down.” I started toward him. He pulled the gun. The skin between my nipples — where the bullet would go — began to itch madly. I could have disarmed him, I thought. I really could have. But no, I had to hear the story. I had to know.
“You sit down, brother. Unlax, as they say in the funnypages.”
“If you’re having a heart attack—”
“I ain’t havin no fuckin heart attack. Now sit down. ”
I sat and looked up at him as he leaned against the garage. His lips had gone a bluish shade I did not associate with good health.
“What do you want with him?” Turcotte asked. “That’s what I want to know. That’s what I got to know, before I can decide what to do with you.”
I thought carefully about how to answer this. As if my life depended on it. Maybe it did. I didn’t think Turcotte had outright murder in him, no matter what he thought, or Frank Dunning would have been planted next to his parents a long time ago. But Turcotte had my gun, and he was a sick man. He might pull the trigger by accident. Whatever force there was that wanted things to stay the same might even help him do it.
If I told him just the right way — leaving out the crazy stuff, in other words — he might believe it. Because of what he believed already. What he knew in his heart.
“He’s going to do it again.”
He started to ask what I meant, then didn’t have to. His eyes widened. “You mean. . her?” He looked toward the hedge. Until then, I hadn’t even been sure he knew what was beyond it.
“Not just her.”
“One of the kids, too?”
“Not one, all. He’s out drinking right now, Turcotte. Working himself into another of his blind rages. You know all about those, don’t you? Only this time there won’t be any covering up afterward. He doesn’t care, either. This has been building ever since his last binge, when Doris finally got tired of being knocked around. She showed him the door, did you know that?”
“Everybody knows. He’s livin in a roomin house over on Charity.”
“He’s been trying to get back into her good graces, but the charming act doesn’t work on her anymore. She wants a divorce, and since he finally understands he can’t talk her out of it, he’s going to give her one with a hammer. Then he’s going to divorce his kids the same way.”
He frowned at me. Bayonet in one hand, gun in the other. A hard wind would blow you away, his sister had told him all those years ago, but I didn’t think it would take much more than a breeze tonight. “How could you know that?”
“I don’t have time to explain, but I know, all right. I’m here to stop it. So give me back my gun and let me do it. For your sister. For your nephew. And because I think down deep, you’re a pretty nice guy.” This was bullshit, but if you’re going to lay it on, my father used to say, you might as well lay it on thick. “Why else would you have stopped Dunning and his friends from beating Chaz Frati half to death?”
He was thinking. I could almost hear the wheels turning and the cogs clicking. Then a light went on in his eyes. Perhaps it was only the last remains of the sunset, but to me it looked like the candles that would now be flickering inside of jack-o’-lanterns all over town. He began to smile. What he said next could only have come from a man who was mentally ill. . or who had lived too long in Derry. . or both.
“Gonna go after em, is he? Okay, let im.”
He pointed the.38 at me. “Sit back down, Amberson. Take a load off.”
I reluctantly settled back. It was now past 7:00 P.M. and he was turning into a shadow-man. “Mr. Turcotte — Bill — I know you don’t feel good, so maybe you don’t fully understand the situation. There’s a woman and four little kids in there. The little girl is only seven, for God’s sake.”
“My nephew was a lot younger’n that.” Turcotte spoke weightily, a man articulating a great truth that explains everything. And justifies it, as well. “I’m too sick to take im on, and you ain’t got the guts. I can see that just lookin at you.”
I thought he was wrong about that. He might have been right about Jake Epping of Lisbon Falls, but that fellow had changed. “Why not let me try? What harm to you?”
“Because even if you killed his ass, it wouldn’t be enough. I just figured that out. It come to me like—” He snapped his fingers. “Like out of thin air.”
“You’re not making sense.”
“That’s because you ain’t had twenty years of seeing men like Tony and Phil Tracker treat him like King Shit. Twenty years of seeing women bat their eyes at him like he was Frank Sinatra. He’s been drivin a Pontiac while I worked my ass off in about six different mills for minimum wage, suckin fabric fibers down my throat until I can’t hardly get up in the morning.” Hand at his chest. Rubbing and rubbing. His face a pale smear in the backyard gloom of 202 Wyemore. “Killin’s too good for that cuntwipe. What he needs is forty years or so in the Shank, where if he drops the soap in the shower, he won’t fuckin dare to bend over and pick it up. Where the only booze he gets’ll be prune squeeze.” His voice dropped. “And you know what else?”
“What?” I felt cold all over.
“When he sobers up, he’ll miss em. He’ll be sorry he did it. He’ll wish he could take it back.” Now almost whispering — a hoarse and phlegmy sound. It’s how the irretrievably mad must talk to themselves late at night in places like Juniper Hill, when their meds wear off. “Maybe he wun’t regret the wife s’much, but the kiddies, sure.” He laughed, then grimaced as if it hurt him. “You’re probably fulla shit, but you know what? I hope you’re not. We’ll wait and see.”
“Turcotte, those kids are innocent.”
“So was Clara. So was little Mikey.” His shadow-shoulders went up and down in a shrug. “Fuck em.”
“You don’t mean th—”
“Shut up. We’ll wait.”
There were glow-in-the-dark hands on the watch Al had given me, and I watched with horror and resignation as the long hand moved down toward the bottom of the dial, then started up once more. Twenty-five minutes until the start of The New Adventures of Ellery Queen. Then twenty. Then fifteen. I tried to talk to him and he told me to shut up. He kept rubbing his chest, only stopping long enough to take his cigarettes from his breast pocket.
“Oh, that’s a good idea,” I said. “That’ll help your heart a lot.”
“Put a sock in it.”
He stuck the bayonet in the gravel behind the garage and lit his cigarette with a battered Zippo. In the momentary flicker of flame, I saw sweat running down his cheeks, even though the night was chilly. His eyes seemed to have receded into their sockets, making his face look like a skull. He sucked in smoke, coughed it out. His thin body shook, but the gun remained steady. Pointed at my chest. Overhead, the stars were out. It was now ten of eight. How far along had Ellery Queen been when Dunning arrived? Harry’s theme hadn’t said, but I was guessing not long. There was no school tomorrow, but Doris Dunning still wouldn’t want seven-year-old Ellen out much later than ten, even if she was with Tugga and Harry.
Five minutes of eight.
And suddenly an idea occurred to me. It had the clarity of undisputed truth, and I spoke while it was still bright.
“What?” He straightened as if he’d been goosed.
“You heard me.” I mimicked him. “‘Nobody messes with Frankie Dunning but me. He’s mine. ’ You’ve been telling yourself that for twenty years, haven’t you? And you haven’t messed with him yet.”
“I told you to shut up.”
“Hell, twenty-two! You didn’t mess with him when he went after Chaz Frati, either, did you? You ran away like a little girl and got the football players.”
“There was six of em!”
“Sure, but Dunning’s been on his own plenty of times since, and you haven’t even put a banana peel down on the sidewalk and hoped he’d slip on it. You’re a chickenshit coward, Turcotte. Hiding over here like a rabbit in a hole.”
“Telling yourself some bullshit about how seeing him in prison would be the best revenge, so you don’t have to face the fact—”
“—that you’re a nutless wonder who’s let his sister’s murderer walk around free for over twenty years—”
“I’m warning you!” He cocked the revolver’s hammer.
I thumped the middle of my chest. “Go on. Do it. Everybody’ll hear the shot, the police will come, Dunning’ll see the ruckus and turn right around, and you’ll be the one in Shawshank. I bet they got a mill there, too. You can work in it for a nickel an hour instead of a buck-twenty. Only you’ll like that, because you won’t have to try and explain to yourself why you just stood by all those years. If your sister was alive, she’d spit on y—”
He thrust the gun forward, meaning to press the muzzle against my chest, and stumbled on his own damn bayonet. I batted the pistol aside with the back of my hand and it went off. The bullet must have gone into the ground less than an inch from my leg, because a little spray of stones struck my pants. I grabbed the gun and pointed it at him, ready to shoot if he made the slightest move to grab the fallen bayonet.
What he did was slump against the garage wall. Now both hands were plastered over the left side of his chest, and he was making a low gagging sound.
Somewhere not too far away — on Kossuth, not Wyemore — a man bellowed: “Fun’s fun, you kids, but one more cherry bomb and I’m calling the cops! A word to the wise!”
I let out my breath. Turcotte was letting his out as well, but in hitching gasps. The gagging sounds continued as he slid down the side of the garage and sprawled on the gravel. I took the bayonet, considered putting it in my belt, and decided I’d only gash my leg with it when I pushed through the hedge: the past hard at work, trying to stop me. I hucked it into the dark yard instead, and heard a low clunk as it hit something. Maybe the side of the YOUR POOCH BELONGS HERE doghouse.
“Ambulance,” Turcotte croaked. His eyes gleamed with what might have been tears. “Please, Amberson. Hurts bad.”
Ambulance. Good idea. And here’s something hilarious. I’d been in Derry — in 1958 —for almost two months, but I still plunged my hand into my right front pants pocket, where I always kept my cell phone when I wasn’t wearing a sport coat. My fingers found nothing there but some change and the keys to the Sunliner.
“Sorry, Turcotte. You were born in the wrong era for instant rescue.”
According to the Bulova, The New Adventures of Ellery Queen was now being telecast to a waiting America. “Tough it out,” I said, and shoved through the hedge, the hand not holding the gun raised to protect my eyes from the stiff, raking branches.
I tripped over the sandbox in the middle of the Dunning backyard, fell full length, and found myself face-to-face with a blank-eyed doll wearing a tiara and nothing else. The revolver flew out of my hand. I went searching for it on my hands and knees, thinking I would never find it; this was the obdurate past’s final trick. A small one, compared to raging stomach flu and Bill Turcotte, but a good one. Then, just as I spotted it lying at the edge of a trapezoidal length of light thrown by the kitchen window, I heard a car coming down Kossuth Street. It was moving far faster than any reasonable driver would have dared to travel on a street that was no doubt full of children wearing masks and carrying trick-or-treat bags. I knew who it was even before it screeched to a stop.
Inside 379, Doris Dunning was sitting on the couch with Troy while Ellen pranced around in her Indian princess costume, wild to get going. Troy had just told her that he would help eat the candy when she, Tugga, and Harry came back. Ellen was replying, “No, you won’t, dress up and get your own.” Everybody would laugh at that, even Harry, who was in the bathroom taking a last-minute whiz. Because Ellen was a real Lucille Ball who could make anybody laugh.
I snatched at the gun. It slipped through my sweat-slick fingers and landed in the grass again. My shin was howling where I’d barked it on the side of the sandbox. On the other side of the house, a car door slammed and rapid footsteps rattled on concrete. I remember thinking, Bar the door, Mom, that’s not just your bad-tempered husband; that’s Derry itself coming up the walk.
I grabbed the gun, staggered upright, stumbled over my own stupid feet, almost went down again, found my balance, and ran for the back door. The cellar bulkhead was in my path. I detoured around it, convinced that if I put my weight on it, it would give way. The air itself seemed to have turned syrupy, as if it were also trying to slow me down.
Even if it kills me, I thought. Even if it kills me and Oswald goes through with it and millions die. Even then. Because this is now. This is them.
The back door would be locked. I was so sure of this that I almost tumbled off the stoop when the knob turned and it swung outward. I stepped into a kitchen that still smelled of the pot roast Mrs. Dunning had cooked in her Hotpoint. The sink was stacked with dishes. There was a gravy boat on the counter; beside it, a platter of cold noodles. From the TV came a trembling violin soundtrack — what Christy used to call “murder music.” Very fitting. Lying on the counter was the rubber Frankenstein mask Tugga meant to wear when he went out trick-or-treating. Next to it was a paper swag-bag with TUGGA’S CANDY DO NOT TOUCH printed on the side in black crayon.
In his theme, Harry had quoted his mother as saying, “Get out of here with that thing, you’re not suppose to be here.” What I heard her actually say as I ran across the linoleum toward the arch between the kitchen and the living room was, “Frank? What are you doing here?” Her voice began to rise. “What’s that? Why have you. . get out of here! ”
Then she screamed.
As I came through the arch, a child said: “Who are you? Why is my mom yelling? Is my daddy here?”
I turned my head and saw ten-year-old Harry Dunning standing in the door of a small water closet in the far corner of the kitchen. He was dressed in buckskin and carrying his air rifle in one hand. With the other he was pulling at his fly. Then Doris Dunning screamed again. The other two boys were yelling. There was a thud — a heavy, sickening sound — and the scream was cut off.
“No, Daddy, don’t, you’re HURRRTING her!” Ellen shrieked.
I ran through the arch and stopped there with my mouth open. Based on Harry’s theme, I had always assumed that I’d have to stop a man swinging the sort of hammer guys kept in their toolboxes. That wasn’t what he had. What he had was a sledgehammer with a twenty-pound head, and he was handling it as if it were a toy. His sleeves were rolled up, and I could see the bulge of muscles that had been built up by twenty years of cutting meat and toting carcasses. Doris was on the living room rug. He had already broken her arm — the bone was sticking out through a rip in the sleeve of her dress — and dislocated her shoulder as well, from the look. Her face was pale and dazed. She was crawling across the rug in front of the TV with her hair hanging in her face. Dunning was slinging back the hammer. This time he’d connect with her head, crushing her skull and sending her brains flying onto the couch cushions.
Ellen was a little dervish, trying to push him back out the door. “Stop, Daddy, stop!”
He grabbed her by her hair and heaved her. She went reeling, feathers flying out of her headdress. She struck the rocking chair and knocked it over.
“Dunning!” I shouted. “Stop it!”
He looked at me with red, streaming eyes. He was drunk. He was crying. Snot hung from his nostrils and spit slicked his chin. His face was a cramp of rage, woe, and bewilderment.
“Who the fuck’re you?” he asked, then charged at me without waiting for an answer.
I pulled the trigger of the revolver, thinking, This time it won’t fire, it’s a Derry gun and it won’t fire.
But it did. The bullet took him in the shoulder. A red rose bloomed on his white shirt. He twisted sideways with the impact, then came on again. He raised the sledge. The bloom on his shirt spread, but he didn’t seem to feel it.
I pulled the trigger again, but someone jostled me just as I did, and the bullet went high and wild. It was Harry. “Stop it, Daddy!” His voice was shrill. “Stop or I’ll shoot you!”
Arthur “Tugga” Dunning was crawling toward me, toward the kitchen. Just as Harry fired his air rifle—ka-chow! — Dunning brought the sledge down on Tugga’s head. The boy’s face was obliterated in a sheet of blood. Bone fragments and clumps of hair leaped high in the air; droplets of blood spattered the overhead light fixture. Ellen and Mrs. Dunning were shrieking, shrieking.
I caught my balance and fired a third time. This one tore off Dunning’s right cheek all the way up to the ear, but it still didn’t stop him. He’s not human is what I thought then, and what I still think now. All I saw in his gushing eyes and gnashing mouth — he seemed to be chewing the air rather than breathing it — was a kind of blabbering emptiness.
“Who the fuck’re you?” he repeated, then: “You’re trespassing.”
He slung the sledge back and brought it around in a whistling horizontal arc. I bent at the knees, ducking as I did it, and although the twenty-pound head seemed to miss me entirely — I felt no pain, not then — a wave of heat flashed across the top of my head. The gun flew out of my hand, struck the wall, and bounced into the corner. Something warm was running down the side of my face. Did I understand he’d clipped me just enough to tear a six-inch-long gash in my scalp? That he’d missed either knocking me unconscious or outright killing me by maybe as little as an eighth of an inch? I can’t say. All of this happened in less than a minute; maybe it was only thirty seconds. Life turns on a dime, and when it does, it turns fast.
“Get out!” I shouted at Troy. “Take your sister and get out! Yell for help! Yell your head o—”
Dunning swung the sledge. I jumped back, and the head buried itself in the wall, smashing laths and sending a puff of plaster into the air to join the gunsmoke. The TV was still playing. Still violins, still murder music.
As Dunning struggled to pull his sledge out of the wall, something flew past me. It was the Daisy air rifle. Harry had thrown it. The barrel struck Frank Dunning in his torn-open cheek and he screamed with pain.
“You little bastard! I’ll kill you for that!”
Troy was carrying Ellen to the door. So that’s all right, I thought, I changed things at least that much—
But before he could get her out, someone first filled the door and then came stumbling in, knocking Troy Dunning and the little girl to the floor. I barely had time to see this, because Frank had pulled the sledge free and was coming for me. I backed up, shoving Harry into the kitchen with one hand.
“Out the back door, son. Fast. I’ll hold him off until you—”
Frank Dunning shrieked and stiffened. All at once something was poking out through his chest. It was like a magic trick. The thing was so coated with blood it took a second for me to realize what it was: the point of a bayonet.
“That’s for my sister, you fuck,” Bill Turcotte rasped. “That’s for Clara.”
Dunning went down, feet in the living room, head in the archway between the living room and the kitchen. But not all the way down. The tip of the blade dug into the floor and held him up. One of his feet kicked a single time, then he was still. He looked like he’d died trying to do a push-up.
Everyone was screaming. The air stank of gunsmoke, plaster, and blood. Doris was lurching crookedly toward her dead son with her hair hanging in her face. I didn’t want her to see that — Tugga’s head had been split open all the way down to the jaw — but there was no way I could stop her.
“I’ll do better next time, Mrs. Dunning,” I croaked. “That’s a promise.”
There was blood all over my face; I had to wipe it out of my left eye in order to see on that side. Since I was still conscious, I thought I wasn’t hurt too badly, and I knew that scalp wounds bleed like a bitch. But I was a mess, and if there was ever going to be a next time, I had to get out of here this time, unseen and in a hurry.
But I had to talk to Turcotte before I left. Or at least try. He had collapsed against the wall by Dunning’s splayed feet. He was holding his chest and gasping. His face was corpse-white except for his lips, now as purple as those of a kid who has been gobbling huckleberries. I reached for his hand. He grasped it with panicky tightness, but there was a tiny glint of humor in his eyes.
“Who’s the chickenshit now, Amberson?”
“Not you,” I said. “You’re a hero.”
“Yeah,” he wheezed. “Just toss the fuckin medal in my coffin.”
Doris was cradling her dead son. Behind her, Troy was walking in circles with Ellen’s head pressed tight against his chest. He didn’t look toward us, didn’t seem to realize we were there. The little girl was wailing.
“You’ll be okay,” I said. As if I knew. “Now listen, because this is important: forget my name.”
“What name? You never gave it.”
“Right. And. . you know my car?”
“Ford.” He was losing his voice, but his eyes were still fixed on mine. “Nice one. Convert. Y-block engine. Fifty-four or — five.”
“You never saw it. That’s the most important thing of all, Turcotte. I need it to get downstate tonight and I’ll have to take the turnpike most of the way because I don’t know any of the other roads. If I can get down to central Maine, I’ll be free and clear. Do you understand what I’m telling you?”
“Never saw your car,” he said, then winced. “Ah, fuck, don’t that hurt. ”
I put my fingers on his stubble-prickly throat and felt his pulse. It was rapid and wildly uneven. In the distance I could hear wailing sirens. “You did the right thing.”
His eyes rolled. “Almost didn’t. I don’t know what I was thinkin of. I must have been crazy. Listen, buddy. If they do run you down, don’t tell em what I. . you know, what I—”
“I never would. You took care of him, Turcotte. He was a mad dog and you put him down. Your sister would be proud.”
He smiled and closed his eyes.
I went into the bathroom, grabbed a towel, soaked it in the basin, and scrubbed my bloody face. I tossed the towel in the tub, grabbed two more, and stepped out into the kitchen.
The boy who had brought me here was standing on the faded linoleum by the stove and watching me. Although it had probably been six years since he’d sucked his thumb, he was sucking it now. His eyes were wide and solemn, swimming with tears. Freckles of blood spattered his cheeks and brow. Here was a boy who had just experienced something that would no doubt traumatize him, but he was also a boy who would never grow up to become Hoptoad Harry. Or to write a theme that would make me cry.
“Who are you, mister?” he asked.
“Nobody.” I walked past him to the door. He deserved more than that, though. The sirens were closer now, but I turned back. “Your good angel,” I said. Then I slipped out the back door and into Halloween night of 1958.
I walked up Wyemore to Witcham, saw flashing blue lights heading for Kossuth Street, and kept on walking. Two blocks further into the residential district, I turned right on Gerard Avenue. People were standing out on the sidewalks, turned toward the sound of the sirens.
“Mister, do you know what happened?” a man asked me. He was holding the hand of a sneaker-wearing Snow White.
“I heard kids setting off cherry bombs,” I said. “Maybe they started a fire.” I kept walking and made sure to keep the left side of my face away from him, because there was a streetlight nearby and my scalp was still oozing blood.
Four blocks down, I turned back toward Witcham. This far south of Kossuth, Witcham Street was dark and quiet. All the available police cars were probably now at the scene. Good. I had almost reached the corner of Grove and Witcham when my knees turned to rubber. I looked around, saw no trick-or-treaters, and sat down on the curb. I couldn’t afford to stop, but I had to. I’d thrown up everything in my stomach, I hadn’t had anything to eat all day except for one lousy candybar (and couldn’t remember if I’d even managed to get all of that down before Turcotte jumped me), and I’d just been through a violent interlude in which I had been wounded — how badly I still didn’t know. It was either stop now and let my body regroup or pass out on the sidewalk.
I put my head between my knees and drew a series of deep slow breaths, as I’d learned in the Red Cross course I’d taken to get a lifeguard certification back in college. At first I kept seeing Tugga Dunning’s head as it exploded under the smashing downward force of the hammer, and that made the faintness worse. Then I thought of Harry, who had been splashed with his brother’s blood but was otherwise unhurt. And Ellen, who wasn’t deep in a coma from which she would never emerge. And Troy. And Doris. Her badly broken arm might hurt her for the rest of her life, but at least she was going to have a life.
“I did it, Al,” I whispered.
But what had I done in 2011? What had I done to 2011? Those were questions that still had to be answered. If something terrible had happened because of the butterfly effect, I could always go back and erase it. . unless, in changing the course of the Dunning family’s lives, I had somehow changed the course of Al Templeton’s as well. Suppose the diner was no longer where I’d left it? Suppose it turned out he’d never moved it from Auburn? Or never opened a diner at all? It didn’t seem likely. . but here I was, sitting on a 1958 curb with blood oozing out of my 1958 haircut, and how likely was that ?
I rose to my feet, staggered, then got moving. To my right, down Witcham Street, I could see the flash and strobe of blue lights. A crowd had gathered on the corner of Kossuth, but their backs were to me. The church where I’d left my car was just across the street. The Sunliner was alone in the parking lot now, but it looked okay; no Halloween pranksters had let the air out of my tires. Then I saw a yellow square under one of the windshield wipers. My thoughts flashed to the Yellow Card Man, and my gut tightened. I snatched it, then exhaled a sigh of relief when I read what was written there: JOIN YOUR FRIENDS AND NEIGHBORS FOR WORSHIP THIS SUNDAY AT 9 AM NEWCOMERS ALWAYS WELCOME! REMEMBER, “LIFE IS THE QUESTION, JESUS IS THE ANSWER.”
“I thought hard drugs were the answer, and I could sure use some right now,” I muttered, and unlocked the driver’s door. I thought of the paper bag I’d left behind the garage of the house on Wyemore Lane. The cops investigating the area were apt to discover it. Inside they’d find a few candybars, a mostly empty bottle of Kaopectate. . and a stack of what amounted to adult diapers.
I wondered what they’d make of that.
But not too much.
By the time I reached the turnpike, my head was aching fiercely, but even if this hadn’t been before the era of twenty-four-hour convenience stores, I’m not sure I would have dared to stop; my shirt was stiff with drying blood on the lefthand side. At least I’d remembered to fill the gas tank.
Once I tried exploring the gash on my head with the tips of my fingers and was rewarded with a blaze of pain that persuaded me not to make a second attempt.
I did stop at the rest area outside of Augusta. By then it was past ten o’clock and the place was deserted. I turned on the dome light and checked my pupils in the rearview mirror. They looked the same size, which was a relief. There was a snacks vending machine outside the men’s privy, where ten cents bought me a cream-stuffed chocolate whoopie pie. I gobbled it as I drove, and my headache abated somewhat.
It was after midnight when I got to Lisbon Falls. Main Street was dark, but both the Worumbo and U.S. Gypsum mills were running full tilt, huffing and chuffing, throwing their stinks into the air and spilling their acid wastes into the river. The clusters of shining lights made them look like spaceships. I parked the Sunliner outside the Kennebec Fruit, where it would stay until someone peeked inside and saw the spots of blood on the seat, driver’s door, and steering wheel. Then the police would be called. I supposed they’d dust the Ford for fingerprints. It was possible they’d match prints found on a certain.38 Police Special at a murder scene in Derry. The name George Amberson might emerge in Derry and then down here in the Falls. But if the rabbit-hole was still where I’d left it, George was going to leave no trail to follow, and the fingerprints belonged to a man who wasn’t going to be born for another eighteen years.
I opened the trunk, took out the briefcase, and decided to leave everything else. For all I knew, it might end up being sold at the Jolly White Elephant, the secondhand store not far from Titus Chevron. I crossed the street toward the mill’s dragon-breath, a shat-HOOSH, shat-HOOSH that would continue around the clock until Reagan-era free trade rendered pricey American textiles obsolete.
The drying shed was lit by a white fluorescent glow from the dirty dyehouse windows. I spotted the chain blocking off the drying shed from the rest of the courtyard. It was too dark to read the sign hanging from it, and it had been almost two months since I’d seen it, but I remembered what it said: NO ADMITTANCE BEYOND THIS POINT UNTIL SEWER PIPE IS REPAIRED . There was no sign of the Yellow Card Man — or the Orange Card Man, if that’s what he was now.
Headlights flooded the courtyard, illuminating me like an ant on a plate. My shadow jumped out long and scrawny in front of me. I froze as a big transport truck trundled toward me. I expected the driver to stop, lean out, and ask me what the hell I was doing here. He slowed but didn’t stop. Raised a hand to me. I raised mine in return, and he drove on toward the loading docks with dozens of empty barrels clunking around in back. I headed for the chain, took one quick look around, and ducked under it.
I walked down the flank of the drying shed, heart beating hard in my chest. The gash on my head pounded in harmony. This time there was no chunk of concrete to mark the spot. Slow, I told myself. Slow. The step is right. . here.
Only it wasn’t. There was nothing but the pavement under my testing, tapping shoe.
I went a little farther, and there was still nothing. It was cold enough to see a thin vapor when I exhaled, but a light, greasy sweat had broken out on my arms and neck. I went a little farther, but was now almost sure I had gone too far. Either the rabbit-hole was gone or it had never been there in the first place, which meant that my whole life as Jake Epping — everything from my prize-winning FFA garden in grammar school to my abandoned novel in college to my marriage to a basically sweet woman who’d almost drowned my love for her in alcohol — had been a crazy hallucination. I’d been George Amberson all along.
I went a little farther, then stopped, breathing hard. Somewhere — maybe in the dyehouse, maybe in one of the weaving rooms — someone shouted “Fuck me sideways!” I jumped, then jumped again at the bull roar of laughter that followed the exclamation.
Or never was.
And did I feel disappointment? Terror? Outright panic? None of those, actually. What I felt was a sneaking sense of relief. What I thought was, I could live here. And quite easily. Happily, even .
Was that true? Yes. Yes.
It stank near the mills and on public conveyances where everybody smoked their heads off, but in most places the air smelled incredibly sweet. Incredibly new. Food tasted good; milk was delivered directly to your door. After a period of withdrawal from my computer, I’d gained enough perspective to realize just how addicted to that fucking thing I’d become, spending hours reading stupid email attachments and visiting websites for the same reason mountaineers wanted to climb Everest: because they were there. My cell phone never rang because I had no cell phone, and what a relief that had been. Outside of the big cities, most folks were still on party lines, and did the majority lock their doors at night? Balls they did. They worried about nuclear war, but I was safe in the knowledge that the people of 1958 would grow old and die without ever hearing of an A-bomb being exploded in anything but a test. No one worried about global warming or suicide bombers flying hijacked jets into skyscrapers.
And if my 2011 life wasn’t a hallucination (in my heart I knew this), I could still stop Oswald. I just wouldn’t know the ultimate result. I thought I could live with that.
Okay. The first thing to do was to return to the Sunliner and get out of Lisbon Falls. I’d drive to Lewiston, find the bus station, and buy a ticket to New York. I’d take a train to Dallas from there. . or hell, why not fly? I still had plenty of cash, and no airline clerk was going to demand a picture ID. All I had to do was fork over the price of a ticket and Trans World Airlines would welcome me aboard.
The relief of this decision was so great that my legs again went rubbery. The weakness wasn’t as bad as it had been in Derry, when I’d had to sit down, but I leaned against the drying shed for support. My elbow struck it, making a soft bong sound. And a voice spoke to me out of thin air. Hoarse. Almost a growl. A voice from the future, as it were.
“Jake? Is that you?” This was followed by a fusillade of dry, barking coughs.
I almost kept silent. I could have kept silent. Then I thought of how much of his life Al had invested in this project, and how I was now the only thing he had left to hope for.
I turned toward the sound of those coughs and spoke in a low voice. “Al? Talk to me. Count off.” I could have added, Or just keep coughing .
He began to count. I went toward the sound of the numbers, feeling with my foot. After ten steps — far beyond the place where I had given up — the toe of my shoe simultaneously took a step forward and struck something that stopped it cold. I took one more look around. Took one more breath of the chemical-stenchy air. Then I closed my eyes and started climbing steps I couldn’t see. On the fourth one, the chilly night air was replaced with stuffy warmth and the smells of coffee and spices. At least that was the case with my top half. Below the waist, I could still feel the night.
I stood there for maybe three seconds, half in the present and half in the past. Then I opened my eyes, saw Al’s haggard, anxious, too-thin face, and stepped back into 2011.