The BodyStephen King
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For George McLeod
The most important things are the hardest things to say. They are the things you get ashamed of, because words diminish them—words shrink things that seemed limitless when they were in your head to no more than living size when they’re brought out. But it’s more than that, isn’t it? The most important things lie too close to wherever your secret heart is buried, like landmarks to a treasure your enemies would love to steal away. And you may make revelations that cost you dearly only to have people look at you in a funny way, not understanding what you’ve said at all, or why you thought it was so important that you almost cried while you were saying it. That’s the worst, I think. When the secret stays locked within not for want of a teller but for want of an understanding ear.
I was twelve going on thirteen when I first saw a dead human being. It happened in I960, a long time ago . . . although sometimes it doesn’t seem that long to me. Especially on the nights I wake up from dreams where the hail falls into his open eyes.
We had a treehouse in a big elm which overhung a vacant lot in Castle Rock. There’s a moving company on that lot today, and the elm is gone. Progress. It was a sort of social club, although it had no name. There were five, maybe six steady guys and some other wet ends who just hung around. We’d let them come up when there was a card game and we needed some fresh blood. The game was usually blackjack and we played for pennies, nickel limit. But you got double money on blackjack and five-card-under . . . triple money on six-card-under, although Teddy was the only guy crazy enough to go for that.
The sides of the treehouse were planks scavenged from the shitpile behind Mackey Lumber & Building Supply on Carbine Road—they were splintery and full of knotholes we plugged with either toilet paper or paper towels. The roof was a corrugated tin sheet we hawked from the dump, looking over our shoulders all the time we were hustling it out of there, because the dump custodian’s dog was supposed to be a real kid-eating monster. We found a screen door out there on the same day. It was flyproof but really rusty—I mean, that rust was extreme. No matter what time of day you looked out that screen door, it looked like sunset.
Besides playing cards, the club was a good place to go and smoke cigarettes and look at girly books. There were half a dozen battered tin ashtrays that said camels on the bottom, a lot of centerfolds tacked to the splintery walls, twenty or thirty dog-eared packs of Bike cards (Teddy got them from his uncle, who ran the Castle Rock Stationery Shoppe—when Teddy’s unc asked him one day what kind of cards we played, Teddy said we had cribbage tournaments and Teddy’s unc thought that was just fine), a set of plastic poker chips, and a pile of ancient Master Detective murder magazines to leaf through if there was nothing else shaking. We also built a 12" x 10" secret compartment under the floor to hide most of this stuff in on the rare occasions when some kid’s father decided it was time to do the we’re-really-good-pals routine. When it rained, being in the club was like being inside a Jamaican steel drum . . . but that summer there had been no rain.
It had been the driest and hottest since 1907—or so the newspapers said, and on that Friday preceding the Labor Day weekend and the start of another school year, even the goldenrod in the fields and the ditches beside the backroads looked parched and poorly. Nobody’s garden had done doodly-squat that year, and the big displays of canning stuff in the Castle Rock Red & White were still there, gathering dust. No one had anything to put up that summer, except maybe dandelion wine.
Teddy and Chris and I were up in the club on that Friday morning, glooming to each other about school being so near and playing cards and swapping the same old traveling salesman jokes and frenchman jokes. How do you know when a frenchman’s been in your back yard? Well, your garbage cans are empty and your dog is pregnant. Teddy would try to look offended, but he was the first one to bring in a joke as soon as he heard it, only switching frenchman to polack.
The elm gave good shade, but we already had our shirts off so we wouldn’t sweat them up too bad. We were playing three-penny-scat, the dullest card-game ever invented, but it was too hot to think about anything more complicated. We’d had a pretty fair scratch ballteam until the middle of August and then a lot of kids just drifted away. Too hot.
I was down to my ride and building spades. I’d started with thirteen, gotten an eight to make twenty-one, and nothing had happened since then. Chris knocked. I took my last draw and got nothing helpful.
“Twenty-nine,” Chris said, laying down diamonds.
“Twenty-two,” Teddy said, looking disgusted.
“Piss up a rope,” I said, and tossed my cards onto the table face down.
“Gordie’s out, ole Gordie just bit the bag and stepped out the door,” Teddy bugled, and then gave out with his patented Teddy Duchamp laugh—Eeee-eee-eee, like a rusty nail being slowly hauled out of a rotten board. Well, he was weird; we all knew it. He was close to being thirteen like the rest of us, but the thick glasses and the hearing aid he wore sometimes made him look like an old man. Kids were always trying to cadge smokes off him on the street, but the bugle in his shirt was just his hearing-aid battery.
In spite of the glasses and the flesh-colored button always screwed into his ear, Teddy couldn’t see very well and often misunderstood the things people said to him. In baseball you had to have him play the fences, way beyond Chris in left field and Billy Greer in right. You just hoped no one would hit one that far because Teddy would go grimly after it, see it or not. Every now and then he got bonked a good one, and once he went out cold when he ran full-tilt-boogie into the fence by the treehouse. He lay there on his back with his eyes showing whites for almost five minutes, and I got scared. Then he woke up and walked around with a bloody nose and a huge purple lump rising on his forehead, trying to claim that the ball was foul.
His eyesight was just naturally bad, but there was nothing natural about what had happened to his ears. Back in those days, when it was cool to get your hair cut so that your ears stuck out like a couple of jug-handles, Teddy had Castle Rock’s first Beatle haircut—four years before anyone in America had ever heard of the Beatles. He kept his ears covered because they looked like two lumps of warm wax.
One day when he was eight, Teddy’s father got pissed at him for breaking a plate. His mother was working at the shoe factory in South Paris when it happened and by the time she found out about it, it was all over.
Teddy’s dad took Teddy over to the big woodstove at the back of the kitchen and shoved the side of Teddy’s head down against one of the cast-iron burner plates. He held it down there for about ten seconds. Then he yanked Teddy up by the hair of the head and did the other side. Then he called the Central Main General Emergency unit and told them to come get his boy. Then he hung up the phone, went into the closet, got his .410, and sat down to watch the daytime stories on TV with the shotgun laid across his knees. When Mrs. Burroughs from next door came over to ask if Teddy was all right—she’d heard the screaming—Teddy’s dad pointed the shotgun at her. Mrs. Burroughs went out of the Duchamp house at roughly the speed of light, locked herself into her own house, and called the police. When the ambulance came, Mr. Duchamp let the orderlies in and then went out on the back porch to stand guard while they wheeled Teddy to the old portholed Buick
ambulance on a stretcher.
Teddy’s dad explained to the orderlies that while the fucking brass hats said the area was clear, there were still kraut snipers everywhere. One of the orderlies asked Teddy’s dad if he thought he could hold on. Teddy’s dad smiled tightly and told the orderly he’d hold until hell was a Frigidaire dealership, if that’s what it took. The orderly saluted, and Teddy’s dad snapped it right back at him. A few minutes after the ambulance left, the state police arrived and relieved Norman Duchamp of duty.
He’d been doing odd things like shooting cats and lighting fires in mailboxes for over a year, and after the atrocity he had visited upon his son, they had a quick hearing and sent him to Togus, which is a VA hospital. Togus is where you have to go if you’re a section eight. Teddy’s dad had stormed the beach at Normandy, and that’s just the way Teddy always put it. Teddy was proud of his old man in spite of what his old man had done to him, and Teddy went with his mom to visit him every week.
He was the dumbest guy we hung around with, I guess, and he was crazy. He’d take the craziest chances you can imagine, and get away with them. His big thing was what he called “truck-dodging.” He’d run out in front of them on 196 and sometimes they’d miss him by bare inches. God knew how many heart attacks he’d caused, and he’d be laughing while the windblast from the passing truck rippled his clothes. It scared us because his vision was so lousy, Coke-bottle glasses or not. It seemed like only a matter of time before he misjudged one of those trucks. And you had to be careful what you dared him, because Teddy would do anything on a dare.
“Gordie’s out, eeeeee-eee-eee!”
“Screw,” I said, and picked up a Master Detective to read while they played it out. I turned to “He Stomped the Pretty Co-Ed to Death in a Stalled Elevator” and got right into it.
Teddy picked up his cards, gave them one brief look, and said: “I knock.”
“You four-eyed pile of shit!” Chris cried.
“The pile of shit has a thousand eyes,” Teddy said gravely, and both Chris and I cracked up. Teddy stared at us with a slight frown, as if wondering what had gotten us laughing. That was another thing about the cat—he was always coming out with weird stuff like “The pile of shit has a thousand eyes,” and you could never be sure if he meant it to be funny or if it just happened that way. He’d look at the people who were laughing with that slight frown on his face, as if to say: O Lord what is it this time?
Teddy had a natural thirty—jack, queen, and king of clubs. Chris had only sixteen and went down to his ride.
Teddy was shuffling the cards in his clumsy way and I was just getting to the gooshy part of the murder story, where this deranged sailor from New Orleans was doing the Bristol Stomp all over this college girl from Bryn Mawr because he couldn’t stand being in closed-in places, when we heard someone coming fast up the ladder nailed to the side of the elm. A fist rapped on the underside of the trapdoor.
“Who goes?” Chris yelled.
“Vern!” He sounded excited and out of breath.
I went to the trapdoor and pulled the bolt. The trapdoor banged up and Vern Tessio, one of the other regulars, pulled himself into the clubhouse. He was sweating buckets and his hair, which he usually kept combed in a perfect imitation of his rock and roll idol, Bobby Rydell, was plastered to his bullet head in chunks and strings.
“Wow, man,” he panted. “Wait’ll you hear this.”
“Hear what?” I asked.
“Lemme get my breath. I ran all the way from my house.”
“I ran all the way home,” Teddy wavered in a dreadful Little Anthony falsetto, “just to say I’m soh-ree—”
“Fuck your hand, man,” Vern said.
“Drop dead in a shed, Fred,” Teddy returned smartly.
“You ran all the way from your place?” Chris asked unbelievingly. “Man, you’re crazy.” Vern’s house was two miles down Grand Street. “It must be ninety out there.”
“This is worth it,” Vern said. “Holy Jeezum. You won’t believe this. Sincerely.” He slapped his sweaty forehead to show us how sincere he was.
“Okay, what?” Chris asked.
“Can you guys camp out tonight?” Vern was looking at us earnestly, excitedly. His eyes looked like raisins pushed into dark circles of sweat. “I mean, if you tell your folks we’re gonna tent out in my back field?”
“Yeah, I guess so,” Chris said, picking up his new hand and looking at it. “But my dad’s on a mean streak. Drinkin, y’know.”
“You got to, man,” Vern said. “Sincerely. You won’t believe this. Can you, Gordie?”
I was able to do most stuff like that—in fact, I’d been like the Invisible Boy that whole summer. In April my older brother, Dennis, had been killed in a Jeep accident. That was at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he was in Basic. He and another guy were on their way to the PX and an Army truck hit them broadside. Dennis was killed instantly and his passenger had been in a coma ever since. Dennis would have been twenty-two later that week. I’d already picked out a birthday card for him at Dahlie’s over in Castle Green.
I cried when I heard, and I cried more at the funeral, and I couldn’t believe that Dennis was gone, that anyone that used to knuckle my head or scare me with a rubber spider until I cried or give me a kiss when I fell down and scraped both knees bloody and whisper in my ear, “Now stop cryin, ya baby!”—that a person who had touched me could be dead. It hurt me and it scared me that he could be dead . . . but it seemed to have taken all the heart out of my parents. For me, Dennis was hardly more than an acquaintance. He was ten years older than me if you can dig it, and he had his own friends and classmates. We ate at the same table for a lot of years, and sometimes he was my friend and sometimes my tormentor, but mostly he was, you know, just a guy. When he died he’d been gone for a year except for a couple of furloughs. We didn’t even look alike. It took me a long time after that summer to realize that most of the tears I cried were for my mom and dad. Fat lot of good it did them, or me.
“So what are you pissing and moaning about, Vern-O?” Teddy asked.
“I knock,” Chris said.
“What?” Teddy screamed, immediately forgetting all about Vern. “You friggin liar! You ain’t got no pat hand. I didn’t deal you no pat hand.”
Chris smirked. “Make your draw, shitheap.”
Teddy reached for the top card on the pile of Bikes. Chris reached for the Winstons on the ledge behind him. I bent over to pick up my detective magazine.
Vern Tessio said: “You guys want to go see a dead body?”
We’d all heard about it on the radio, of course. The radio, a Philco with a cracked case which had also been scavenged from the dump, played all the time. We kept it tuned to WALM in Lewiston, which churned out the super-hits and the boss oldies: “What in the World’s Come Over You” by Jack Scott and “This Time” by Troy Shondell and “King Creole” by Elvis and “Only the Lonely” by Roy Orbison. When the news came on we usually switched some mental dial over to Mute. The news was a lot of happy horseshit about Kennedy and Nixon and Quemoy and Matsu and the missile gap and what a shit that Castro was turning out to be after all. But we had all listened to the Ray Brower story a little more closely, because he was a kid our age.
He was from Chamberlain, a town forty miles or so east of Castle Rock. Three days before Vern came busting into the clubhouse after a two-mile run up Grand Street, Ray Brower had gone out with one of his mother’s pots to pick blueberries. When dark came and he still wasn’t back, the Browers called the county sheriff and a search started—first just around the kid’s house and then spreading to the surrounding towns of Motton and Durham and Pownal. Everybody got into the act—cops, deputies, game wardens, volunteers. But three days later the kid was still missing. You could tell, hearing about it on the radio, that they were never going to find that poor sucker alive; eventually the search would just peter away into nothing.
He might have gotten smothered in a gravel pit slide or drowned in a brook, and ten years from now some hunter would find his bones. They were already dragging the ponds in Chamberlain, and the Motton Reservoir.
Nothing like that could happen in southwestern Maine today; most of the area has become suburbanized, and the bedroom communities surrounding Portland and Lewiston have spread out like the tentacles of a giant squid. The woods are still there, and they get heavier as you work your way west toward the White Mountains, but these days if you can keep your head long enough to walk five miles in one consistent direction, you’re certain to cross two-lane blacktop. But in 1960 the whole area between Chamberlain and Castle Rock was undeveloped, and there were places that hadn’t even been logged since before World War II. In those days it was still possible to walk into the woods and lose your direction there and die there.
Vern Tessio had been under his porch that morning, digging.
We all understood that right away, but maybe I should take just a minute to explain it to you. Teddy Duchamp was only about half-bright, but Vern Tessio would never be spending any of his spare time on College Bowl either. Still his brother Billy was even dumber, as you will see. But first I have to tell you why Vern was digging under the porch.
Four years ago, when he was eight, Vern buried a quart jar of pennies under the long Tessio front porch. Vern called the dark space under the porch his “cave.” He was playing a pirate sort of game, and the pennies were buried treasure—only if you were playing pirate with Vern, you couldn’t call it buried treasure, you had to call it “booty.” So he buried the jar of pennies deep, filled in the hole, and covered the fresh dirt with some of the old leaves that had drifted under there over the years. He drew a treasure map which he put up in his room with the rest of his junk. He forgot all about it for a month or so. Then, being low on cash for a movie or something, he remembered the pennies and went to get his map. But his mom had been in to clean two or three times since then, and had collected all the old homework papers and candy wrappers and comic magazines and joke books. She burned them in the stove to start the cook-fire one morning, and Vern’s treasure map went right up the kitchen chimney.